Source: Safety At Sea – Magazine – News (03 Sep 2009) — by Rob Ward
In the maritime and port communities of Brazil, one topic dominates conversation: the enormous salaries commanded by pilots. The issue of wages may not seem to be a safety concern, but the debate has serious implications for the pilotage of vessels in the region, as changes to the way in which pilots’ wages are regulated may result in altered training arrangements and could even affect the supply of fresh recruits to the profession.
On one side of the debate you have Alexandre Rocha, a top pilot in the south Brazilian port of Itajaí and the financial director of Conapra, the Brazilian pilots’ association. Rocha is worried that regulatory changes triggered by wage issues could lead to inexperienced pilots working in difficult conditions. “If we have too many new pilots being placed in one port all at the same time then there are some very serious safety issues,” he told SASI.
Taking the opposing view is Elias Gedeon, executive director for Centronave, an association that represents the interests of foreign-flag shipowners in Brazil. “The pilots in Brazil are an unregulated monopoly,” he told SASI. “It is supposed to be regulated by the Brazilian Navy, but they will only intervene if the pilots stop the service – and the pilots are too clever to do that.”
The navy currently oversees pilot training and has a close relationship with the profession because many pilots are former naval personnel. Centronave maintains that pilot training and wages should be regulated by the Brazilian Special Ports Ministry (SEP) or by Antaq (a regulatory body linked to the Ministry of Transport) or even by local port authorities. “They should be regulated through a civil institution,” Gedeon told SASI.
“Centronave is insisting that the safety aspects can be covered by the navy and the economic side by someone else,” Rocha countered. “We are saying there should be no difference: pilots need to be independent and should not be subjected to outside [economic] pressures. Pilotage is not a commercial issue, it is a safety issue.”
With the backing of a study from São Paulo University, Centronave and other port users have been claiming that pilots in Brazil are being paid on average around $1.1M a year. The average cost of port fees for a 5,000teu container ship calling at Santos (which boasts up to 40 vessel calls a day) comes in at Reais56,000 ($28,000) per call – and at least 50% of that goes directly to the pilots.
“We know some pilots sympathise with us and some have agreed to a pay freeze this year,” reflected Gedeon, “but some are already planning for big increases for next year. We also don’t feel safety will be jeopardised, as the navy could still oversee training of new pilots and safety aspects.” And he acknowledged that “when the economic crisis is over we will need more pilots.”
In Rocha’s view, many of the reported income increases have been caused by the reduction in pilot numbers, through retirement and the lack of a policy to train up more. Because the independent pilots’ associations are paid per vessel call, any reduction in the number of pilots available means more work – and more money – for each remaining pilot.
“New recruits must be phased in gradually,” observed Rocha. “If you have too many pilots coming into the system too quickly it could mean some are under the professional standard required, and that could have safety implications.” Some 117 trainee pilots have recently passed their exams in Brazil.
Rocha insisted that Itajaí has been understaffed for some time, with six pilots on the roster, one of whom is on long-term sick leave. “The work is very stressful, especially here where the channel is very narrow and the vessels are getting bigger and bigger – up to more than 4,000teu capacity before the recent floods took away some of the depth.” Rocha said he was taking in six new recruits, but only one of them had local knowledge of the River Itajaí-Açu, which is narrow, has several sharp bends, and strong currents that build up at particular points in certain seasons. Brazilian rules dictate that trainees must spend at least one year alongside an experienced pilot before being allowed to guide vessels on their own.
Pedro Brito, the special minister with responsibility for Brazil’s ports via the SEP, has made it clear that he wants to see Conapra made more accountable. Conapra, meanwhile, is leaving it down to each port’s individual pilots to agree a reduction in fees. SASI sources in Brazil understand that the carriers will get, at best, a tariff freeze in 2009.