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article imageOp-Ed: The very ugly world of modern seafaring unveiled – It’s hideous

By Paul Wallis     Oct 19, 2020 in World
Sydney - I’ve worked doing writing jobs for seafarer’s missions. I gained some truly repulsive insights into the realities of working at sea in the process. Things are getting worse, and it’s now a subject of serious inquiry for governments.
The current state of things at sea is truly horrendous. “Slavery” is one of the words being used, and it’s pretty right. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF)is calling for action on a shopping list of horrors.
Problems include:
• 18 months at sea without leaving the ship
• Intimidation
• Threats
• Health problems, some serious
• Bribery
• Labour law breaches
• Underpayment (who’s surprised?)
As you probably don’t need to be told, all of the above practices are totally illegal. These are not exactly unknown problems and they predate the pandemic by many years. They’ve been making news in various forms without much real traction in media. Nothing, as in absolutely nothing, seems to have been done about any of the issues, on any level, despite much pushing by people who know the problems.
Working conditions are another issue which fit in the category of godawful by any standards. Some ships are literally floating slums, and that may be an understatement. Poor hygiene, basic sanitation, and the general wellbeing of seafarers in many different areas.
Seafarer’s missions are onshore help for seafarers. I think it’s fair to say that even they are baffled by the many horrors experienced by people seeking their help. Simply complying with basic maritime laws and regulations can’t be that hard, surely?
Many cases which crop up indicate that almost no attempt at compliance is made. There’s something totally unbelievable about the sheer scale of gratuitous brutality of working at sea, for so many people. The utter madness of some cases beggars belief.
The usual suspect, and in this case the right one, is money. It’s cheaper to treat people like this, so that’s what happens. Costs are cut. People are underpaid. Ship maintenance is sometimes so bad it’s obscene. It’s all about reducing costs at the expense of safety and people. A brief look at the news about seafarers' missions and their work tells a grim tale, occasionally relieved by practical solutions and rescues for people in trouble.
“Disgusting” doesn’t even begin to describe it
There are no adequate terms to describe the staggeringly poor state of seafaring realities. Some ships have entered Australian waters in appalling condition, not at all seaworthy by any possible standard. How these things stay afloat is anyone’s guess, and many of them don’t stay afloat for long. Exactly why anyone would trust any kind of commercial cargo to such pitifully maintained ships is debatable, but presumably that’s all about saving money, too.
Crew abuse is all too common. Some people have been sexually assaulted, or otherwise assaulted or even killed. That’s been going on for many years. The long ugly tale of abuse of seafarers is more like something out of the 1500s than the 21st century. “Floating atrocities” would be about as close to a description as possible.
Coordinated international law and regulation is required
Internationally, a patchwork of well-intentioned projects and programs is put in place to help seafarers. Managing the problem, of course, is often wilfully obstructed by the nations which ignore maritime law. These are the countries which support the devastating illegal fishing which has obliterated fish stocks worldwide. It also includes those countries which turn a blind telescope to breaches of laws on a routine basis, piracy, people smuggling, and any other moneymakers which happen to come along.
There’s a positive range of possibilities to this, despite appearances. Docking permission and inspections are basic processes. Compliance is mandatory, and there are no arguments against it. Ships can be held in port pending inquiries and ship personnel can be charged with offenses.
These processes cost big money and can make the difference between profit and loss. On an international scale, they can get these floating dunghills off the sea, and force improvements across the board. There’s not much point in operating a ship at a loss, let alone with criminal charges, etc., as part of the package.
Coordination is the key. If there are ways around compliance, these sleazy shipowners will use them. Maritime laws need to be much toughened and applied across the board.
Change the culture
The other critical issue which needs drastic improvement is the seafaring culture. In the past, seafarers were true professionals, not just suits on ships. They knew the rules, knew the safety issues and understood the risks.
From the look of the collection of failed bathtub toys waddling around the world’s seas, that’s no longer the case. One big wave can turn even a well-maintained ship into scrap metal, let alone the ridiculously unsafe things one sees regularly at sea.
How does a culture of professionals become a culture of cretinous shore-bound spreadsheet worshippers? How do basic common sense laws become a matter of choice for criminals? This obnoxious, insane, culture must change, and it must change at the trainee level for seafarers and management. It’s the only way to make sure people understand the rules that save their lives. It’s also the only way to ensure that seafarers are assured of decent working conditions.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about International Transport Workers Federation, seafaring missions, international maritime law, working conditions for seafarers, unseaworthy ships
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