Seafaring through the lens of Covid-19 | By Dr Kanwar M Javed Iqbal


Seafaring through the lens of Covid-19

IN FACT, it was the element of maritime-blindness that stimulated a process at the United Nations (UN) via the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for the creation of World Maritime Day to celebrate the international maritime industry’s contribution towards the world’s economy, with a major focus on the shipping sector.

Since the first celebration in 1978, the event’s date varies by year and country but it is always in the last week of September with a unique theme every year.

Today, over 90% of world trade is carried by ship. The frontline people responsible for maintaining, running and operating the fleet are seafarers.

They are responsible for using emergency, lifesaving, damage control and safety equipment on a merchant ship, performing general maintenance, repair and sanitation duties and standing watch to ensure the ship maintains a steady course.

They also contribute by way of earning valuable foreign exchange for the country. There are over 1.65 million seafarers on Merchant Ships worldwide, out of which 774,000 are officers and 873,500 are ratings.

The majority of seafarers originate from the Philippines, China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Women make up just 2% of the workforce. In Pakistan, there are about 8,000 officers and 10,500 ratings duly registered as seamen.

Out of this total number, about 30% are employed on national as well as foreign ships. Despite global demand, Pakistani seafarers are facing many challenges viz-a-viz their placement, capacity, image, mobility and job security etc.

Considering the vital role of seafarers as key workers for global supply chains and the unprecedented hardship faced by them due to the COVID-19 pandemic, IMO has chosen to make 2021 a year of action for this important segment of our society.

The World Maritime Day theme for 2021 is ‘Seafarers: at the core of shipping’s future’ seeks to increase the visibility of seafarers by drawing attention to the invaluable role they play now and will continue to play in the future.

As far as major problems for seafarers are concerned, they are exposed to a high intensity of occupational health hazards on board ships.

Despite recent advancement in injury prevention, accidents occur due to harmful working and living conditions at sea and of non-observance of safety rules.

Shipboard stress and high demand may lead to fatigue and isolation and lack of leisure time possibilities which have significant impact on the health condition of seafarers. Communicable diseases in seafaring remain an occupational problem. Exposure to hazardous substances and UV-light are serious health risks on-board ships.

Major functional issues faced by seafarers are mainly lenient registries, mindless security measures at ports, difficulty to join ships, not enough time for maintenance work at ports and lack of proper training.

It is a harsh reality that COVID-19 struck our world with a huge negative footprint on the lives of humankind, and seafarers are no exception.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, seafarers found themselves both on the front line of the global response and subject to difficult working conditions surrounding uncertainties and difficulties around port access, re-supply, crew changeovers, repatriation, etc.

That is why the theme of World Maritime Day 2021 has revitalized the need for the governments to recognize seafarers as key workers and ease travel restrictions for them to facilitate crew changes.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crew change crisis in 2020 has highlighted seafarers’ exceptional contribution as key and essential workers on the front line of delivering vital goods through a pandemic and in ordinary times.

The international community has seen how the ability for shipping services and seafarers to ensure the functioning of the global supply chains has been central to responding to, and eventually overcoming, this pandemic. This could not have happened without the professionalism and dedication of the world’s seafarers.

The focus on seafarers comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on seafarers, with hundreds of thousands of men and women stranded on ships for months beyond their original contracts, unable to be repatriated due to national travel restrictions. A similar number of seafarers are unable to join ships and earn a living.

This crew change crisis, which has been ongoing for nearly a year, is a humanitarian emergency that threatens the safety of shipping.

It is a fact that COVID-19 has impacted the normal working of the seafarers more negatively. There are significant aspects that discourage seafarers from joining ships.

Strict COVID-19 protocol resulting in quarantine of the seafarers, ships, onerous time taking tests, costly medical examinations all of which are discouraging factors to work in maritime profession.

Preventing the seafarers from freely entering the destination ports by creating long quarantines and not granting short-term visas due to adoption of domestic laws in many countries is another serious problem that will negatively affect the future of seafarers, if continued on similar patterns.

The overall situation demands the serious entry of the IMO in this matter by exerting pressure through maritime conventions.

It is pertinent to highlight that IMO/ ILO/ governments, shipping companies and seafarers themselves have shared responsibility for a fair future for seafarers.

For a fair future, safe and conducive working conditions, competitive salary and diversity are the important areas along-with equally important role of training and capacity building.Today, a visible progress can be seen on the route of diversity.

However, there is still a long way to go for the actual agenda about diversity at sea which is not all about gender, it means to create a society which is full of equal people coming from different nations, countries, generations and gender together with equal opportunities.

I think we need more policies and initiatives to attract maritime companies to create a more diverse working environment, without any kind of discrimination includingthe restrictions towards world citizenship.

—The writer is Researcher at National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA), Islamabad.

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