Merchant seafarers have chosen a dangerous occupation in which they are exposed to risks in a combination rarely encountered in other occupations.
- Detlef Nielsen, “Deaths at sea - a study of fatalities on board Hong Kong-registered merchant ships (1986–95)”
Today is designated Day of the Seafarer by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to honour the men and women who risk their lives to ensure there is no disruption in global trade.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines the seafarer as “any person who is employed or engaged or works in any capacity on board a ship to which the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) applies”. The MLC is the international labour standard for seafarers, particularly those in the merchant marine and passenger ship sub-sectors of the global shipping industry. The definition may also apply to other groups, including offshore workers, depending on the ships on which they work but more so on the decision of the ratifying country in defining who is a seafarer under its laws and policies.
Seafarers often go unnoticed but who are among the hardest working whose poor employment and working conditions belie their contribution to the global economy. Seafarers work upwards of 18 hours a day, at times, to transport“ everything from a pin to an anchor” as the saying goes. Over 90% of what we eat, wear, drive, and use domestically and commercially are transported by ships. Seafarers, with much discipline and through rigorous education and training, ensure products are shipped intact and on time.
In all this, seafarers face workplace risks that endanger their very lives. While some risks are a natural part of the job, most job-related ills are directly related to the organisation and control of their work by those ashore. The latest problems currently play out as the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world. Trade continues. Life-saving supplies are delivered to hospitals, food to supermarket shelves, other essential and non-essential consumer items are moved across borders and time zones to get to our doors. Little thought is given to how this persists. Those who are responsible for keeping global trade afloat are allowed as far as our ports to deliver the precious items yet are prisoners aboard the ships they work.
Last year the shipping industry was struck by a crew change crisis. At the peak of this predicament, it was estimated that 400,000 seafarers were not able to sign off their ships. This meant extended contracts with some seafarers working for well over a year, when the industry standard set by the MLC is less than 12 months. It is ironic that countries rely heavily on global trade but did not see it fit to designate seafarers as essential workers until the outcry of welfare providers and seafarers’ unions.
Seafarers are essential workers. They transport the necessities of our very survival. As a former IMO secretary general said some years ago, “if it were not for shipping [seafarers], half the world would freeze and the other half would starve.”
Therefore, we should thank seafarers. We should keep them at the forefront of our minds each time we make that online purchase and become impatient as to why our “stuff” is not yet delivered. It could be because the seafarers transporting it have been abducted by pirates; they could have been pressured to leave port in bad weather and their ship is in trouble at sea, among other things. As landlubbers, we should be mindful and thankful that there are those who risk their lives daily to get us essential and non-essential items.
COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives and the functioning of essential systems that we took for granted. Concerns are being raised about the mental health of seafarers. They are isolated; they are apprehensive for their families; they are fearful for their health and worried about their jobs. That notwithstanding, they continue to deliver goods for us to maintain some semblance of normalcy ashore. Let us not only say thanks but do what we should to bring relief, including the prioritisation of seafarers for vaccinations and granting allowances for their continuous movement as essential workers. Let us show seafarers that we recognise their importance and deserve our sincerest respect, gratitude and support.
Carolyn A. E. Graham, PhD, AFHEA is an artist, writer, reader and sociologist with expertise in maritime affairs. She may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Simone Cunningham-Heirs is lecturer in culture and maritime education. She may be contacted at: email@example.com