Don’t pity the seafarer

Seafarers’ wellbeing is an issue where addressing shortcomings and implementing improvements is undoubtedly necessary. But when doing so, it is important not victimise the seafaring community. Despite its many challenging facets, seafaring can be rewarding in ways it is difficult to find elsewhere.

June 25 2018

In recent years I have seen an increasing amount of ‘pity’ for the seafaring profession, in the media and by various organisations. I take issue with that. And you should, too.

It seems to be good taste these days to portray seafaring as a substandard profession; a career only for people without choice and with a life full of hardship, dangers, and poor working conditions; in other words, for people who rely on the pity of the world to make ends meet and to avoid exploitation – or worse fates. There are 1.5 million seafarers in the world and on the fringe, there may be the occasional “loser and victim” out there. But painting the industry in a bad light due to marginalized cases in second-rate companies and ships is a disservice to the vast majority of people at the sharp end of the shipping industry, who have a lot to be proud of!

Yes, seafaring is not for the faint-hearted and the job really does entail long periods away from home, with the sacrifices and pains that come with that. On the margin, it can also be a dramatic, headline-attracting experience, but for the vast majority it is a job, different from other professions and often a vocation, but a job nevertheless. It is a chance to work in a complex environment and in an exciting industry that is central to global commerce. Onboard a ship every person counts, and the variability of the days makes life aboard no dull matter. Wages on the whole are decent, and onboard a ship a seafarer is an independent, decision-making unit. As part of a large supply chain the seafarer’s ability to take control over or influence one’s own work is unrivalled. It’s a free life, where the periods of hard work and confinement are rewarded with extended time off after a tour of duty and financial freedom to pursue dreams that may otherwise not have been possible.

IMO: Day of the Seafarer

Not everything is what it should be, however, so we have a lot of work ahead of us to address the wellbeing of the world’s seafarers. Physical and mental health amongst seafarers is too often not where it should be, and this needs attention from regulators, employers and employees altogether. Shorter tours of duty and internet access are welcome developments in a world where people work long and irregular hours, but together with smaller crew complements, an external demand for increased compliance and efficiency, and less freedom to think and act creatively, the environment onboard ships is not always supportive of the individual. This can be especially damning if the seafarer is not in top shape both mentally and physically, and I would like to see a future where “sharpening the body and mind” of onboard team members is taken as seriously as getting the ship from A to B. Yes, this may mean that some of the people making it into seafaring today may not do so in the future, as the bar for acceptable physical and mental strength is moved up, but let’s recognize a life on the seven seas for what it is: extraordinary. Different professions have always had different strains on workers and going to sea comes with unusual demands. We should recognize these upfront and ensure we screen for suitability to a very special environment.

But, please, stop pitying the people who go to sea! Seafarers to me are people who can think on their feet. They are independent, creative individuals with a host of skills that cover a very wide range of life and work. They persevere where others give up. Possessing strong technical and scientific knowledge, seafarers are able to cope with a plethora of issues that ashore would require specialists of all sorts, but which at sea are managed with ingenuity and teamwork. Most importantly, seafarers are an indispensable part of transportation between continents in an industry without which half the world would die of hunger and the other half would freeze to death! I am a seafarer and I am proud of it.

I therefore don’t need people – in particular people who have not been to sea themselves – stereotype our industry with well-intentioned but misguided notions of how sad the life of a seafarer is. It is a job that can lead to shore-based roles for some, but it is also a job that is rewarding and exciting in its own right, for the right kind of person. It is a job chosen out of free will by individuals who have options and real choices in life, and it is a proud profession, mostly occupied by people made of the right stuff! So join me in rejecting the victimization of seafarers. We are a winning profession, full of passionate people who make a real difference in upholding some very high standards in often difficult circumstances. Yes, no man is an island and we can’t do it alone, but with shipping stakeholders, together, we can improve on the conditions of work and life onboard and we don’t need the world’s pity to cope with the required adjustments. We are very capable, and we fulfil a role that is both important and for the special few.

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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