Shipping: indispensable to the world
30 June 2016
Nelson Turgo, Research Associate in the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC), reflects on the Day of the Seafarer which took place on June 25th.
This year, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Day of the Seafarer campaign celebrated seafarers and let the world know how and why seafarers are indispensable to everyone. The campaign theme this year was: “At Sea For All”. The IMO say the “…theme has a clear link with the 2016 World Maritime Day theme, “Shipping: indispensable to the world”, emphasising that seafarers serve at sea not just for the shipping industry or for their own career purposes but for all of us – and, consequently, they are also “indispensable to the world”.”…
The gangway was steep. I looked down into the water and my knees became weak. I was on my third week doing the rounds of ships to administer questionnaires to seafarers visiting Wando Port in South Carolina. Once on-board, I was greeted by a seafarer. He smiled at me and once I spoke to him in Filipino, he broke into a guffaw and beckoned me to follow him to the mess hall. “Akala ko iba kang lahi (I thought you were a foreigner),” he said. In the mess hall, some four seafarers, all Filipinos, were having lunch. Great time, I thought. I would have the chance to ask them to fill in my questionnaires!
Later on, chatting with them over steamed rice and adobo (pork stewed in soy sauce and vinegar, commonly known as the Philippines’ national dish), the seafarers told me that they had been in the US for three weeks already, calling in some four ports, and not being able to go ashore all the time because they did not have a US visa. Apparently, their manning agency in Manila did not bother to secure their US visa before deploying them to their ship. Out of the 23 crew members, only the Big Four (master, chief engineer, chief officer and second engineer) had a US visa. So not being able to leave their ship for three weeks now, they were looking forward to their next port of call in the Bahamas.
In the Bahamas, no visa was required to go ashore and they could at last leave the ship for awhile and have a drink, visit a mall and go for a walk in the beach. “Kalayaan!” (Freedom), shouted one seafarer. Everybody laughed. Such fun.
Seafarers are the invisible workers of the global economy. They are the unsung heroes of our commodity-obsessed world. They move goods around the world: cars, agricultural products and livestock, mobile phones, computers, machineries, clothes. There are currently 110,000 ships plying the world’s oceans and they are home to more than a million seafarers, carrying 90 per cent of the world’s trade by weight. Without the crucial work of seafarers, our everyday life will ground to a halt. There will be no bananas to be sold in Tesco, Aldis and all other stores in the UK. No iphones will be available on the high street.
However, though they play a very important role in the global economy, they are also the most vulnerable and most exploited of the global workforce. Though things have changed for the better and seafaring nowadays is much safer compared to the beginning of the 20th century, seafarers are still facing tough times on-board and ashore.
The criminalisation of seafarers has become a big problem. Commercial pressures and latest innovations in container technology have seen the fast turn around of ships in ports, leaving no time for seafarers to go ashore. Back in their home country, vacations are often spent away from their families as they have to attend countless trainings and seminars to upgrade their skills or gain certifications in various areas of seafaring to make them competitive in the global market. This also entails expenses on the seafarers’ side as much of the training they attend is not covered by their employers.
This makes the work of the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) crucial and for the past 21 years, SIRC has led the world in producing independent, high quality research relating to seafarers’ lives.
Recently, we reported on two studies undertaken in the period 2012-2016 which looked into the interactions between seafarers and shore-based personnel and the use of mandatory equipment of seafarers. These studies were participated in by some 3,000 seafarers across the globe and involved nine ship voyages by SIRC staff. The studies aimed to identify the challenges to operational aspects of seafaring relating to ship-shore interactions and issues emanating from the use of equipment on-board.
Over the last 21 years, other studies at SIRC have contributed immensely to the understanding of seafarers’ lives, on-board and ashore. The impact of this cumulative body of research on the lives of seafarers is undeniable. On one of the ships that I sailed with for a month, I had the chance to talk to a visiting superintendent (deployed by the ship management to check on the ship and the welfare of seafarers) and he told me that his company has been using the studies of SIRC for years to come up with programs to better their welfare and training provisions for seafarers.
This is good news indeed, but no longer a surprise to the staff at the Centre, as while it may be little known within the University, SIRC has gained an international reputation as the leading institution undertaking research on seafarers in the world. As such SIRC continues to carry the banner for the University which has always enjoyed a good reputation in relation to maritime matters and social science.
The day of the seafarer serves to remind consumers and producers across the world of the importance of seafarers to international trade and the global economy. At SIRC we seek to do this on a more regular basis and we are spurred on by the first hand knowledge we have gained of the hardships of a life at sea. There is much truth in the saying that ‘worse things happen at sea’.