IRB Lebanon's Vera Medawar to Robban Assafina: Plans Onwards to Become an Elite Registry
Since its inception in 2008, Togo’s International open Ship Registry administered by the International Registration Bureau (IRB) has been growing gradually and stably, operating from its offices in Greece and Beirut, while aiming to strengthen its presence in this very competitive yet vital segment of the maritime industry. Mrs. Vera Medawar, Managing Director and Registrar of IRB Lebanon sheds the light on the meanders and tribulations of the service, stressing on the enriching role of women in the business.
How do you appraise the state flags’ market in the Middle East region and hence worldwide?
As we know, in the shipping industry, a flag state refers to a nation where ship companies get their fleet registered, binding the latter to the rules and regulations of the chosen country in terms of certifications, legal disputes, tax payments and other benefits. In other words, the state registries need to make sure that all rights and obligations stipulated under international law regarding safety, pollution prevention and crew manning are rightfully implemented onboard their fleet. The maritime industry was in fact created to expand the sovereign rights of the countries, either having sea borders or not. And since each flag state exercises its sovereignty and jurisdiction on its vessels navigating the seas, we can state that the maritime industry in general and the state registries in particular, besides facilitating transnational trade and regulating the navigation as a whole, surely are prolific business sectors that employ thousands of workers worldwide and cover the needs of hundreds of households.
Since 90% of global trade comes from goods that have been shipped all over the world, the shipping industry is unquestionably a key economic sector, even supporting large parts of some national economies. And while during the last decade the industry has grown exponentially, the decision regarding which flag state to opt for most shipowners remains a business decision taken after reviewing what are the taxation arrangements, the ship classification conditions, the safety records and crewing requirements.
Functioning as an open flag, the International Ship Registry of Togo has been in fact contributing to the development of the country, while strictly implementing all norms, procedures and amendments of SOLAS, STCW, MARPOL and MLC conventions.
How do you evaluate the women's presence in the shipping industry and what are the challenges that forbid them from having a career in the sector?
In his speech commemorating the “International Day for Women in Maritime”, celebrated on the 18th of May of each year, the IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim, highlighted the relevance of gender equality in the maritime sector, quoting that it is “a prerequisite for a thriving and resilient maritime industry that would bring with it innovation, creativity and sustained growth”.
And despite concrete multiple efforts seen in different contexts worldwide, the gender equality gap is unfortunately still prevailing in the maritime industry. Statistics have shown that women make up to 5% of the workforce, a status quo that IMO initiated in its maritime program in 1988, in a bid to support gender equality and the empowerment of women through different initiatives based on training, mentorship and networking opportunities.
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As for the main difficulty refraining women from having a career in the maritime sector, it is simply the male dominance that has prevailed in the industry over the years. Since most businesses in the maritime sector are family-owned, transmitted from generation to generation, we end up having very few women occupying managerial positions in the hierarchy. But times are changing and women are increasingly putting their prints, successfully, on all segments of the business. An industry in which diversity of gender, backgrounds and ethnicities can only enrich it and make it more successful. “This is what we have been implementing for years now in our company, where women and men from all ages and several origins and backgrounds work together. This amalgam of people, cultures and languages has in fact proven to be very effective in dealing with clients that come from different parts of the world”.
What can be done to attract more women to the maritime business?
Recognizing the problem is the first step to resolving it. Since we overcame that stage, women need now to prove themselves, show their added value and deserve their place at the table. Learning from our predecessors and evolving with men in a constructive working environment as allies and not as enemies is what we women should initiate. Collaborating, we can minimize the gap equality between sexes in the workplace, while providing new perspectives of doing business. And since the era of maneuvering ships with the strength of the arms has long gone, success in the maritime industries nowadays requires more intellect and determination than muscles. Talents that women have surely mastered through the years. Another channel of awareness must take place at schools and universities where young graduates need to get acquainted with positions and different opportunities of the maritime industries and how to have successful careers in the field.
What are the major challenges facing international registers nowadays? What can be done to surmount them?
Despite the frequent issuing of new international regulations governing commercial and high seas fisheries, there are still clearly a big number of merchant and fishing ships that violate daily IMO’s rules and regulations and fail to comply with UNCLOS agreements. Those violations surely tarnish the reputation of the industry, dragging in their wake the small and less prominent registers that find themselves - sometimes unjustly - the target of accusations of mismanagement and misconduct.
Let us stress here that in order to operate, survive and gain market share in this very competitive sector, small ship registers are obliged to follow to the letter all international regulations while securing and insuring their fleet and seafarers against all potential hazards and transgressions. The International Registry of Togo is a signatory state of the MLC 2006 that covers seafarers’ rights and working conditions, among which figures their employment and social rights agreement, their unemployment indemnities, accommodation, repatriation, and nutrition.
Another challenge that our industry is facing now is the issue of fraudulent registration. And though IMO has adopted the MSC resolution and a series of measures to combat this practice that endangers the vessels’ crew and the marine environment, it still persists in the naval activity, especially in small fishing vessels, small general cargo vessels, or dredgers. This usurpation of the nationality that is difficult to trace and surely needs time to be solved, undermines the credibility of the legitime register and affects the reputation of the state in question.
Moreover, piracy is unfortunately still present to this day in some regions of the world, especially in the West African Gulf, where the crew of the ships navigating these waters must be trained with an anti-piracy drill and the appropriate risk assessment must be implemented. As for cyberattacks, they did become more practicable following the automation and digitalization of maritime tasks as ships are becoming more and more reliant on computerized and internet-connected technology.
And last but not least, it has become common to face some shortage in the manning of crews especially among officers with technical experience on specific vessels like chemical or crude tankers and on management levels. To remedy this problem, companies are now working on strategies to promote the advantages of sailing and the possibilities of career evolution with better wages and working conditions. And with the implementation of new technologies onboard ships, new skills and trainings are required from seafarers in order to operate future modern vessels.
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Amid a plethora of registries and international open state flags, what is the Registry of Togo’s short-term strategy of growth?
“Safety first then innovation,” is in fact the International Registry of Togo’s future operation program. Our future plans are to build a fleet with strong security systems and low gas emissions to improve our competitiveness and efficiency. In an ever-changing world, the registries must adapt and manage all aspects of those changes, to secure their future and offer to their clientele sustainable services and a more prolific return on investment.
Moreover, after the Covid-19 era, digitalization of the shipping industry and the implementation of new equipment became more and more a necessity. And with the upcoming introduction of the new “clever” ships, all registers need unquestionably to follow the evolution and apply new manning requirements, new automated registration and operating systems in order to provide their customers with fast, reliable and user-friendly services. Another milestone as the future progression of the industry will be transitioning to a decarbonized industry.
Since 2018, IMO has been implementing numerous regulations and requirements to reduce the environmental impact of shipping. Let me stress here that IMO is also cooperating with developing and African countries to help them in the technical implementation of the energy efficiency of their fleet.
What are the major challenges that the Registry faces and what plans are there to overcome them?
Though flag States are required to exercise effective jurisdiction and control over ships flying their flags, they can seldom face the issue of unrightful management of the manning onboard vessels and can be the subject of reports of the ITF.
Let us stress here that concerning the specific subject of seafarers wages and working conditions, registers cannot be held responsible for payroll delays as these issues are directly controlled by the owners and managing companies of the ships.
The role of the ships’ flag in this case is to protect seafarers against financial risks that a shipowner might face. To cover this dispute, the Administration of Togo’s flag requires from all shipowners and ship managing companies to submit - prior to registration - P&I insurances that abide by the Maritime Labor convention (MLC 2006) law. These insurances cover seafarers from the numerous legal liabilities that they are exposed to during the navigation of their vessels like per example the abandonment of ships by the owners.
Unfortunately, sometimes insurers and ship operators omit to announce to flag administrations the cancellation of the insurance policies of the seafarers and of their vessels. In this case, and if an incident occurs, flag administrations face a big and hazardous situation they are unable to remedy in the frame of their competence since the misconduct was undertaken by the shipowners and involves big settlement amounts. Nevertheless, IRB Togo always strives to solve - with the help of all naval authorities and state administrations - all the litigations and find a suitable settlement for all parties involved, especially the seafarers (repatriation of the crew and wages payment).
On another note, the International Registry of Togo - operating in the shipping market for the past 15 years - has also undertaken severe measures during the last three years to upgrade its performance in the different MoU’s among which we cite:
- Cancelling more than 250 low performing vessels from its registry due to bad performance or to violating the imposed sanctions on some ports.
- Rejecting more than 180 new registration applications after thoroughly vetting the ships and their owners.
- Increasing annual flag inspection rate on all vessels to check their compliance with all international conventions in force.
- Imposing a penalty before cancelling any vessel that undertakes more than two port state detentions.
Constant progress and improvement in its daily operations that the International Registry of Togo will continue implementing as it won’t give up its strong commitment to improve its performance in all port state controls and become an elite registry, despite unjustified numerous allegations of wrongdoing made by some maritime entities or press members.