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Seafarers’ invisibility renders them forgotten

June 25 is the Day of the Seafarer. This is the day designated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to honour and say thanks to the men and women who risk their lives to ensure that there is no disruption in global trade. Yet, as the countries of the world navigate the Covid-19 global pandemic, one wonders whether this show of gratitude is just empty rhetoric.

One of the criticisms raised by insiders in the midst of the crew change crisis (a battle between land and sea) last year was the lack of transparency in the industry mostly created by the ship-owning interests. It has been argued for a while now that the practice of flagging out and regulatory avoidance coupled with the exploitation of cheaper crews from poor countries. These practices were not only strategies to maximise profits at the expense of good employee relations, seafarers’ health and safety and regulatory oversight, but also made shipping invisible. However, Covid-19 has exposed the contradictions within these practices as the maritime industry stakeholders’ appeal to landlubbers to facilitate the movement of seafarers.

There is a major disconnect in the thinking between those ashore who benefit from sea transportation and the operations of the maritime industry

I have vague recollections that the invisibility of the industry at large came up for discussion some years ago, in another ongoing battle between land and sea. This was about public opinion and environmental protection when there is a ship casualty not unlike that which is playing out now with the X-Press Perl or some years ago with the Prestige. The industry (i.e. the International Maritime Organization) acknowledged that it was poor at public relations. The narrative compared the aviation and the maritime industries and how different the two main modes of global transportation were treated in casualty situations due to the visibility of one and the invisibility of the other.

Pilots are hailed as heroes, seafarers are criminalised.

One argument was that because of the visibility of the aviation industry versus the invisibility of the maritime industry, public opinion, that most times drives political actions (such as criminalising seafarers) was not sympathetic when there was a disaster at sea, particularly when the environment was under threat. Perhaps in their attempts to be deliberately invisible, shipowners have contributed to the creation of one of the great paradoxes of the modern era: The massive contribution of seafarers to global trade and yet they are demonised in environmental incidents and treated as criminals in some ports – recall how seafarers were treated like criminals after 9/11 and when the ISPS Code came into effect.

There is a major disconnect in the thinking between those ashore who benefit from sea transportation and the operations of the maritime industry necessary to ensure the transportation of over 90% of global trade. Seafarers bear the brunt of this paradox. The treatment meted out to them during this pandemic bears witness.

What is the solution? Building more awareness on land to mobilise consumers to aid in the drive to treat seafarers humanely? Perhaps. Recently I asked my friend Myrna Simmonds to read a piece I wrote about the plight of seafarers. As someone who shops online and is the beneficiary of consumer goods transported to our shores, she was quite unaware of the world of the seafarer. Her response however seems to suggest that there might be a few willing to be sympathetic if they are made aware of this invisible world. She said:

Your point is well made. You mentioned their “invisibility”…therein lies the problem. Their invisibility renders them “forgotten.” From now on I will pray especially for them. Churches should be encouraged to do so. All di while dem a pray fi leaders of the country…dem need fi pray fi seafarers daily. Honestly, it makes me really sad thinking about the conditions they face DAILY in the course of their jobs. For me, it’s one more thing to be thankful for…that I’m not a seafarer.

Perhaps the IMO might wish to resurrect that discourse on public relations for the maritime industry and lead that charge, this time ensuring that it does not fall by the wayside.

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