It should go without saying in the maritime industry that “Seafarers Matter.” We know that without seafarers half of the world would starve while the other half would freeze. Seafarers do matter, but if this is the case, why in 2017 are seafarers still being abandoned, mistreated, kidnapped and held hostage by pirates, bullied and treated as commodities?
So far this year our helpline, SeafarerHelp, has dealt with over 1,500 cases involving 6,000 seafarers. Of course bad treatment does not happen to the majority of seafarers employed by reputable shipping companies, ship managers or crewing agencies, but a large number of seafarers are still being viewed as second or third class citizens.
While the number of extreme cases is relatively small, many seafarers are denied shore leave or find it difficult to get off the ship to access welfare services and facilities. If seafarers really matter, then it should be made easier for them to leave the ship and visit nearby amenities.
There is an increasing awareness in the industry of the pressures of fatigue and isolation that can lead to seafarers experiencing depression and even contemplating suicide. Thankfully many shipowners, unions and welfare organizations are beginning to tackle this problem, but more needs to be done including erasing the stigma of mental illness and recognizing that mental well-being matters just as much as physical wellness.
Different parts of the maritime industry are also coming together to solve difficult welfare cases, such as abandonment, often quietly and behind the scenes. The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 is leading to improvements to seafarers’ lives, but many countries and ports need to do more to ensure seafarers are welcomed and valued rather than just being tolerated when they dock.
Welfare organizations running centers and ship visiting schemes in over 430 ports around the world work to ensure that seafarers do matter and experience a warm welcome. However, many seafarer centers around the world find it difficult to find resources to keep going. They need much more support.
Unfortunately, piracy off of the coast of Somalia has again reared its ugly head. A merchant ship was successfully hijacked in March, although the crew were only held for a few days. If seafarers matter, then shipping companies need to ensure that they abide by BMP4 and keep their ships away from the Somali coast as well as employing armed guard to protect the crew.
Governments must not become complacent and scale down their navies’ anti-piracy patrols.
Support still needs to be given to piracy survivors and their families. ISWAN is working with a range of other partners in continuing to support the 26 crew of the Naham 3 who were released last October after being held by Somali pirates for over four and half years. If seafarers matter, then pirate attacks and hostage taking should not be allowed to happen again.
On the IMO Day of the Seafarer, let us all celebrate the role of seafarers and say a big thank you to them. Without seafarers our everyday lives would be really difficult to live. Let us ensure that seafarers matter not just on June 25 but on every day of the year.
Roger Harris is Executive Director of International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.