Day of the Seafarer 2016: "At Sea for All"
From time immemorial, seafarers have carried the world's commerce far and wide, connecting an ever-larger network of communities to the opportunities of global trade. Since 2010, the International Maritime Organization has recognized their contributions with an annual Day of the Seafarer, dedicated this year to the idea that mariners are “At Sea for All”: whether transporting containers, providing offshore services or towing barges, seafarers move the world economy forward.
The Day of the Seafarer “gives us all a chance to reflect on how much we all rely on seafarers for most of the things we take for granted in our everyday lives,” said IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim. “Over one million seafarers operate the global fleet yet billions of people depend on them for the essentials and the luxuries of life . . . Outside of shipping, most people don't know a seafarer – but everyone has cause to thank them.”
In a statement on Thursday, Frank Coles, CEO of marine electronics firm Transas, also hailed mariners' contributions to society. “On this International Day of the Seafarer, I would like to take the opportunity to applaud and give recognition to the great contribution of seafarers to the global economy and society,” he said. “It is a role that is often invisible or taken for granted. The important role that seafarers play in enabling the economy must be recognized.” He also took the day of recognition as an opportunity to assure the community that ships will still need mariners for a long time to come, and that their critical role will not be automated. "It is a fallacy to assume that the talk of autonomous ships will make seafarers a thing of the past. There will still be seafarers on-board . . . Proponents of the unmanned ship speak of it for self-serving purposes and without real appreciation of the value of the seafarer on a long ocean voyage,” Coles said. “Seafarers truly are the beating heart of the shipping industry.”
In many parts of the world, organizations are marking Day of the Seafarer with celebrations. Seafarers UK is participating in a seven day UK “Seafarers Awareness Week” intended to highlight recruitment needs and the opportunities for future mariners in Britain's economy and armed forces. In the Philippines, the International Seafarer's Wellness and Assistance Network (ISWAN) is holding a large celebration at a conference center in Manila. 2,000 attendees are expected, and the gathering will include performances and stage shows; lunch for all attendees; prizes and giveaways; and medical professionals providing advice, free health checks, and health information. IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim will also be present to address the audience.
While there is much to celebrate, there are few segments of the maritime world that have not been affected by the recent downturn in shipping, and seafarers are no exception. The industry still foresees a shortfall of skilled, licensed officers and engineers in future years – but in a report Thursday, maritime consultants Drewry suggested that the shortfall will be less acute given "dreadful" market conditions and slower hiring. In addition, with many firms operating in the red, wages are under pressure, Drewry says: "Poor freight earnings are forcing owners and operators to reduce costs, in turn keeping any increase in wage levels to a bare minimum . . . the offshore sector, in particular, has witnessed wage reductions in light of falling oil prices and an uncertain economic outlook."
Several organizations and dignitaries also took Day of the Seafarer as an opportunity to note areas where seafarers' working and living conditions could be improved. “At sea for up to a year, [seafarers] may face loneliness, isolation and exploitation. They deserve appreciation for their efforts and compensation for their labor,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “On this Day of the Seafarer, let us advance the work of those who make shipping possible in a way that promotes our global vision of a life of dignity and opportunity for all.”
A small minority of shipboard situations – like human rights abuses in certain Southeast Asian fisheries, or seafarer abandonment, in which owners leave a vessel and its crew behind in a foreign port, with unpaid wages and dwindling supplies – are perennial, difficult-to-solve problems affecting hard-working mariners. Seafarers' Rights International published the following video on Friday to bring attention to the difficulties mariners face when left aboard an abandoned vessel.
The great majority of seafarers do not face these conditions, but work at sea can still be challenging, with long periods away from home, rough weather and separation from family and friends. The Day of the Seafarer is an important opportunity to show our gratitude for all that seafarers do for society, for the economy and for the industry – and to show that while mariners are out at “sea for all,” all ashore stand behind those at sea.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.