With ships getting bigger, crews smaller and stays in port getting shorter, all in the pursuit to make more money; it is no surprise that every now and then short cuts are taken in regards to the welfare of seafarers. And rather than being viewed as one of the most essential industries, which carries more than 90% of the worlds trade and makes possible the import and export of goods on the scale necessary for our modern consumerist world, it is sad that ships are viewed as nothing more than delivery vehicles and the seafarers onboard as nothing more than the cogs on the wheels that are needed to make the vehicles mobile.
How is it that 1.5 million seafarers in the world, whose job it is to bring us almost all of our consumer products, can remain invisible to the majority of the people?. Seafarers work in hazardous conditions, spending prolonged periods away from their families and communities, so that the rest of us can enjoy the latest gadgets which were made on the other side of the world. It is for this invisible army that charities such as the Mission to Seafarers work hard to ensure are protected from abuse, and have direct access to someone other than their employers who can provide them with help when they get to a port.
One of the things seafarers normally complain about is the lack of recreational facilities onboard vessels. The lack of recreational facilities on vessels which seafarers have to spend prolonged periods of time can lead to cases of depression. The reason why an increasing number of seafarers point out recreational facilities as being extremely important is the dramatic change in the turnaround times. The vessels offload their cargo at port quickly and turn out to sea again for the next destination. This can lead to increased social isolation onboard, fatigue and limited opportunities for shore leave. When all this is added up, it can have a serious impact on the health and welfare of seafarers, which in turn can have a negative impact on their ability to do their job adequately.
Despite the existence of ILO’s labour laws that set out the minimum requirements for seafarers while on a vessel (e.g. hours of work and rest, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection) the enforcement of these laws has been a challenge. The recognition of the importance of seafarers to shipping has led to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC 2006), which came into force in August 2013. However, it is obvious from incidents that have occurred over the years that these laws are not foolproof and seafarers’ rights do sometimes get trampled upon.
In the event where the ship owner or ship master fails to fulfil their responsibility to the seafarers and the port authority is not aware, a seafarer is left with two choices. Either stay quiet or seek advice from others that are not connected with their employers that might be able to help them. This is where charities like the Mission to Seafarers who are dedicated to the promotion of the welfare of seafarers come in to play. Because no matter what laws are passed and what conventions come into force, there will always be seafarers who are in need.
Without seafarers the shipping industry simply cannot work. It is in the best interest of all concerned to ensure seafarers welfare is taken into consideration. What we hope for is that the promulgation of MLC 2006 will finally give the seafarers their rightful place in shipping.
Ahmed Ali Mohamed
MA International Maritime Policy