25th June has been christened as the ‘Day of the Seafarer’. While the world sits back to enjoy their Sunday, the sea trade carries on – no holidays, no rest! While it is a rather common job pursued by quite a few nowadays, the world is yet to acknowledge the extent to which each and every seafarer is entwined within their regular lives.
This year, the IMO has themed the day as ‘Seafarers Matter’ and for good reason that one might be able to grasp better as this article progresses. Established in 2010 by a Diplomatic Conference in Manila, the Seafarer’s Day aims to recognise the contribution of seafarers to the economy, trade and regular civil life. While the day is marked by social events, free Wi-Fi at ports (much needed; maybe should be an everyday thing), and open days at seafarer centres across the world, it is way more important for any person to actually understand as to why seafarers matter.
Let’s take a look at the top 5 reasons seafarers matter to the world.
1. The World Trade and Globalisation Depend on Seafarers
Shipping is an industry that contributes over 90% to the world economy. There are about 51400 merchant ships plying all over the world, transferring goods between places, keeping the economy running. Whether it is oil from the Gulf or wheat from the Cargill Grain Dock in Houston or iPhones in containers being delivered from one part of the world to another – everything is running round the clock, with precision and diligence.
Who are the people responsible for this non-stop action? While the shipbrokers and the charterers and the owners take care of the financial aspects backing the viability of the trade, the seafarers are the ones executing it in the real life aspect. The trade is only so good when the product is delivered safe and on time to the receiver, and seafarers ensure that Sundays notwithstanding! Seafarers do not understand the concept, rather cannot be allowed to understand the concept of Sundays – someone somewhere is in need of a product that must be delivered clean and on time. Nations are fuelled by gas (gallons of crude oil carried by VLOC’s and VLCC’s) and to make it clearer, the shortage of oil supply because of a stalled ship can cause chaos. This involves years of rigorous training in mastering the aspects of navigation, cargo work and ship operations and the everyday precise application of it.
The figure of 90% isn’t an arbitrary figure but rather a ‘precise estimation’ and rightfully so. Shipping still happens to be the cheapest mode of transport. Some might ignorantly argue about airplanes, trains etc. being equally important.
Yes, they are important but have you ever seen an airplane carry a few more airplanes in it?
The containers or the vast amounts of content carried by rail is also the result of a ship having gotten it in the first place. The sheer volume that can be carried onboard negates any competition whatsoever when it comes to the economical aspect of trade and transport.
Seafarers, with their theoretical knowledge of it all combined with their gradual increase in experience, make it all happen.
2. Daily Lives Of People Depends On Seafarers
The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the oil that fuels your automobile- EVERYTHING has been transferred via ships. In fact, most of the products in your vicinity now have probably been on a ship at some point! One never stops to think about what must be going behind this extent of ‘globalization’ wherein your phone is Chinese, your shoes are Italian and your laptop is run by a Korean processor while one sits and uses these every day without a hitch. In business there is little to no room for error- everyone will agree that if a faulty Rolls Royce is delivered to them, or if their food seems contaminated- they would not be too happy as consumers!
The errors are the exception, the rule is that seafarers always deliver these products in their prime quality and on time and in the process save everybody a great deal of money. If not for a seafarer worth his salt, port delays and dues, claims against cargo and so on would drive up the price to a point where it would not be a viable business. Even when it comes to commodities (for example those traded on the MCX or say Brent Crude) and their prices, they are all essentially driven by shipping. The commodity market had a huge boom pre – 2008 recession, jacked up by the Chinese demand getting more ships to keep up- all delivered aptly by skilled seafarers! The boom is long gone, salaries have been hit and yet the seafarer does not stop his round the clock endeavour to do what needs to be done.
One must stop to think the level of involvement of every single seafarer out there.
3. Not Everyone Can Do This Job
As mentioned before, the training is long and academically challenging, with topics ranging from astronomy to engines to law (among many others). However, it is the mental constitution of a seafarer that really sets out the fabric for a career at sea. The need to be away from family for long periods, being without connectivity to the outside world for days at times, being at sea day in and day out, the worry about family and the ones close to the heart, immense work pressure to deliver everything as planned- it all takes a huge toll on any individual- just imagine having to do all that as part of any other regular job!
The level of commitment and mettle required for a seafarer to successfully carry out his duties calls for a lot of honour attached to it. These are sacrifices that a few can make, akin only to a soldier defending his country at the frontiers. The soldiers help us sleep peacefully at night and always keep up the optimum security of the nation, while the seafarers ensure that once a person wakes up from his sleep, every aspect from food to clothes to their car and every other need has been met as per deadlines. The extent of this is huge and often overlooked. Seafarers matter indeed!
4. Saving Lives At Sea
Instead of getting into technical jargon about SAR and IAMSAR let us for once think about all the recent news about the immigration crisis from war-ridden countries. While these helpless people take huge risks of life to escape their countries, it is the seafarers that are constantly engaged in humanitarian relief for those who cannot make it all the way! Even with the case of other vessels that might have been subject to mishap, a vessel in the vicinity will always be there to render assistance.
Even recently, the Indian Government carried out a massive evacuation of civilians from a war-torn country, lauded across the world, that involved merchant ships as well. Out at sea with no immediate ways of receiving assistance, the seafarers are the torch bearers of humanitarian relief and search and rescue operations (in liaison with aircrafts and the Government of course).
5. Unrecognised But Unfazed
The layman tends to ask the usual questions (what do you do at sea?!) and assumes that the seafarer earns a great deal of money, paid out to travel the world and live the good life. Companies are constantly reducing salaries to make their operations more and more economically viable. Regulations are getting more and more stringent with ever increasing paperwork and therefore, pressure on the Master and his crew. No one has actually stopped to think and thank the seafarers who are giving all their time and efforts to all this work! But with the strong mental constitution and mettle of pretty much every seafarer out there, the lot if unfazed, carrying out their duties, to provide for the world and to provide for their families who they have left behind for that fat salary that everyone keeps talking about! Seafarers are unsung heroes without a doubt, who do not care for much aside from their work and their sign off date! By virtue of the lack of recognition that is evident, it definitely reduces the enthusiasm but does not ever halt the work. Unrecognised yet unfazed – something the world needs to learn from the seafarers.
With the recent advancements in technology wherein ships are gradually moving towards being unmanned, it could be deemed as a small threat to the seafaring profession. While it might affect the profession in some way, the years of theoretical knowledge, practical applications, experience at sea can NEVER be replaced by a machine or a controller sitting cozy in an air conditioned office a few kilometres from home. The sea and winds do not always follow the predicted patterns and the human angle to shipping will always be invaluable. The expertise gained over the years trumps any new challenges to the profession. The seafarer is indispensable!
Rose George in her book, ‘Ninety Percent Of Everything’, lays out all that goes behind the shipping industry and all that goes with the seafarers running it. Ms. George is shrewd on the economies of scale at work in global shipping. Her book is replete with facts that will make you slowly rub your forehead. “Shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent 10,000 miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters,” she writes.
It is indeed high time the world woke up to this immense contribution and started appreciating the unknown seafarer a little more. It is high time that companies revisited the salary structures of a seafarer. It is high time that the world realised that Seafarers Matter.
Happy Seafarers Day! Keep on keeping on.
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