Quietly, largely unappreciated and mostly overlooked, the global economy is kept afloat by a tireless professional workforce known as seafarers. As early as 4000 BC, humans employed the use of vessels to cart goods and people via the oceans which transcend nations and thus connecting us all. Today, from the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the gadgets we use to the medical supplies we utilise, almost everything is brought to us by ships. Despite the crucial role the shipping industry plays in maintaining the global economy, very few people have any clue about the industry and professionals who operate, manage, and keep the wheels of this economy oiled and rolling steadily.
Internationally, the 25 of June of every year has been dedicated to this vital but unappreciated or even forgotten workforce, whose professionalism and high sense of responsibility keeps the global economy in motion. These gallant men and women who dare the tides to ensure nations and their populations get their energy, food, health and other supplies are known as Seafarers. These brave men and women perform one of the toughest jobs known globally, by operating the massive ships over great distances and in the riskiest and roughest of seas. Seafarers make unimaginable sacrifices to ensure we are fed, clothed, sheltered and live in relative comfort.
Sacrificing their social life – while people on land celebrate and socialise at every possible opportunity, seafarers continue to toil away at sea to ensure that those celebrations do not stop, even at the cost of their own happiness; staying away from their loved ones and missing family events including birthday celebrations of their own children. This is the tough choice Seafarers make; not just to earn a living for their loved ones, but even more importantly, to help you pop champagne, sip exotic wines, drive beautiful cars, dress elegantly, eat healthily, stay safe and enjoy the very things they are missing out on.
Aside from the risks posed by nature through violent winds, angry, relentless, grasping tides and others, Seafarers also face artificial risks such as piracy, armed robbery and sometimes wars. These risks threaten the lives of Seafarers on a daily basis. In the course of their duties, several ships have been hijacked by pirates and many seafarers have been taken hostage, tortured, abused, battered and kept in miserable conditions until huge ransoms are exacted from their families or ship owners. Precisely 119 incidents of piracy and armed robbery were reported to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre in 2019 alone. In the first quarter of that year, 1 seafarer was killed, 38 were taken hostage, 37 kidnapped and 4 injured.
Seafarers work round the clock – gone are the days when seafarers had the luxury of a prolonged stay at ports. Today a ship is loaded and unloaded in a maximum of 24 hours, which means there is no time for shore-leaves. Additionally, with increasing threats of terrorism, most countries do not even allow shore-leave to seafarers; leaving them with no option but to stay on board throughout their time in ports or anchorages.
Some seafarers do not enjoy the most basic and fundamental rights: many shipping companies do not have proper pension schemes in their contracts of employment, even if seafarers want to contribute. Conversely, a person working on land at any level has all such basic rights.
To recognise the unique contribution made by the about 2 million seafarers from all over the world to international seaborne trade, the world economy and civil society as a whole, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – which is the United Nations specialised agency on shipping matters – designated the 25thof June every year as the annual Day of the Seafarer. The day was established through a resolution adopted by the International Maritime Organisation’s 2010 Diplomatic Conference in Manila to adopt the revised International Convention on the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping of Seafarers.
The theme for this year’s celebration, ‘Seafarers are key workers’, has its roots in the unprecedented changes and developments forced on the world by the global COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of the anxiety and uncertainty associated with the pandemic, seafarers amazingly continue to ensure goods reach their destinations with unrelenting dedication, spectacular professionalism, uncommon resilience, and unparalleled bravery and perseverance.
Nonetheless, major frustrations remain. As a result of the well-intentioned efforts to protect public health and safety by governments the world over, the industry is faced with serious restrictions, hampering the ability to conduct routine crew changes, undertake repatriations, obtain passports and visas to get to and from their ships, access medical care, acquire personal protective equipment; and are denied shore-leave.
It is in this light that the IMO – working with trade unions, seafarer welfare organisations, shipping industry representatives and other United Nations agencies – is urging governments to recognise all seafarers as ‘key workers’. Seafarers’ work is unique and essential. Just like other key workers, seafarers are on the frontline in this global fight. They deserve our thanks. But they also need – and deserve – quick and decisive humanitarian action from governments everywhere; not just during the pandemic, but always.
Ghana has about 4000 gallant men and women employed in this noble profession, without whom half the world would freeze and the other half starve to death. On this special day, let us with one accord appreciate and salute these heroes.
We say Ayekoo and thank you for all that you sacrifice so that we can live.
The author is the Acting Head, Maritime Services, Ghana Maritime Authority