Hiring ship armed guards – beware race to bottom

May 27 2021

Cost pressures on tanker operators, and increased operating costs of running security companies, has led to shipping companies hiring security companies which cut corners, warns security consultancy Dryad Global.

Ship operators hire armed guards to countenance the potential use of lethal force to defend a vessel in extreme and proscribed circumstances.


It’s a serious business and has potentially significant consequences.


However, there continues to be a trend within some quarters of the industry that devalues the importance of armed guarding through low prices and loose guidelines.


The costs of placing armed guards has risen considerably since the disruption caused by COVID-19 took effect.


But this does not mask the relentless downward pressure on prices [for security companies] over the previous 24 months and barely alleviates the financial pressures of increased operating costs and reduced business volume induced by the pandemic.


In response, this precipitated a race to the bottom price war amongst some providers looking to retain market share at all costs.


To achieve rock-bottom prices compromises have been made, short-cuts taken, standards lowered, blind-eyes turned, ignorance and indifference ingrained on both sides of the supply and demand equation.


However, failing to understand and assess the threat for each specific transit, ignoring and failing to interrogate financial substance, capability and operational standards of the private maritime security company (PMSC) is a dangerous game and has serious consequences.


The impact of Covid-19 on the movement of personnel between vessels and ports, the extended levels of isolation at sea, poor working conditions and financially struggling PMSCs mean there are a number of significant factors that vessel operators need to consider.


Due diligence in terms of SOLAS and financial viability are of paramount importance to safeguard cargo, crew and reputation.


In light of operational difficulties an increasing number of operators are failing to carry out due diligence on the armed guards they use, opting for the cheapest options to ensure they meet the minimum requirements of their insurance providers for transits through high risk areas like the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.


When it comes to hiring personnel with designated security duties including armed guards, vessel operators will invariably get the service they pay for and thus are liable for the associated heightened risks of dealing with such providers.  


Vessel protection and armed guarding should be defined by the highest of standards and needs to provide vessel operators with quality assurance at its best. 


In a commoditising industry we aim to stand out for our refusal to cut corners. 


For each voyage, the decision to engage a PMSC is an operational one, which should be based on a bespoke voyage-specific risk assessment.


Due diligence in the selection of a private maritime security company (PMSC) is indeed able to be conducted upstream of such a requirement but should be thorough and potentially revisited in part if their engagement is deemed necessary.  


Ukranian dispute

In two separate incidents in July and August 2020 a Ukranian private maritime security contractor working for private maritime security company Alphard hijacked two vessels and their crew in a dispute over working conditions and pay. 


On July 21, the Jaeger bulk carrier embarked three security guards in the Indian Ocean before sailing towards the Red Sea, a transit through the High Risk Area (HRA) that the Eagle Bulk company has completed for all transits for over ten years. 


Reports say that once onboard, one of the guards took control of the vessel, asking it to deviate from its course, while voicing grievances and demanding compensation for late salary payments.


On August 21st, the same Ukranian, still working for private maritime security company Alphard, broke into the armoury onboard research vessel Golden Palm and took the crew hostage again in his fight over back pay. 


The Ukranian guard had been stuck at sea for over 5 months, without pay and with no prospect of relief. Although a grievous criminal act, the circumstances drove him to desperation. 


The Eagle Bulk and Golden Palm incidents aren’t isolated, they are just underreported in the public domain.


What the PMSC’s are facing is a pressure cooker of factors that are putting unacceptable levels of pressure on crew and guards. 


The incidents onboard the Eagle Bulk and Golden Palm shine a light on the desperate working conditions faced by some private maritime security personnel. 


PMSCs continue to offer dangerously low prices for the contracting of their guard services which has a knock-on effect for its employees. 


Ship operators have a duty of care to ensure that the PMSC they select to contract for their transit security requirements maintains the highest standards in relation to seafarer's welfare and industry best practice.


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