Seafarers’ invisibility renders them forgotten

Carolyn Graham, associate fellow at the Seafarers International Research Centre, writes for Splash on today’s Day of the Seafarer.

June 25 is the Day of the Seafarer. This is the day designated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to honour and say thanks to the men and women who risk their lives to ensure that there is no disruption in global trade. Yet, as the countries of the world navigate the Covid-19 global pandemic, one wonders whether this show of gratitude is just empty rhetoric.

One of the criticisms raised by insiders in the midst of the crew change crisis (a battle between land and sea) last year was the lack of transparency in the industry mostly created by the ship-owning interests. It has been argued for a while now that the practice of flagging out and regulatory avoidance coupled with the exploitation of cheaper crews from poor countries. These practices were not only strategies to maximise profits at the expense of good employee relations, seafarers’ health and safety and regulatory oversight, but also made shipping invisible. However, Covid-19 has exposed the contradictions within these practices as the maritime industry stakeholders’ appeal to landlubbers to facilitate the movement of seafarers.

There is a major disconnect in the thinking between those ashore who benefit from sea transportation and the operations of the maritime industry

I have vague recollections that the invisibility of the industry at large came up for discussion some years ago, in another ongoing battle between land and sea. This was about public opinion and environmental protection when there is a ship casualty not unlike that which is playing out now with the X-Press Perl or some years ago with the Prestige. The industry (i.e. the International Maritime Organization) acknowledged that it was poor at public relations. The narrative compared the aviation and the maritime industries and how different the two main modes of global transportation were treated in casualty situations due to the visibility of one and the invisibility of the other.

Pilots are hailed as heroes, seafarers are criminalised.

One argument was that because of the visibility of the aviation industry versus the invisibility of the maritime industry, public opinion, that most times drives political actions (such as criminalising seafarers) was not sympathetic when there was a disaster at sea, particularly when the environment was under threat. Perhaps in their attempts to be deliberately invisible, shipowners have contributed to the creation of one of the great paradoxes of the modern era: The massive contribution of seafarers to global trade and yet they are demonised in environmental incidents and treated as criminals in some ports – recall how seafarers were treated like criminals after 9/11 and when the ISPS Code came into effect.

There is a major disconnect in the thinking between those ashore who benefit from sea transportation and the operations of the maritime industry necessary to ensure the transportation of over 90% of global trade. Seafarers bear the brunt of this paradox. The treatment meted out to them during this pandemic bears witness.

What is the solution? Building more awareness on land to mobilise consumers to aid in the drive to treat seafarers humanely? Perhaps. Recently I asked my friend Myrna Simmonds to read a piece I wrote about the plight of seafarers. As someone who shops online and is the beneficiary of consumer goods transported to our shores, she was quite unaware of the world of the seafarer. Her response however seems to suggest that there might be a few willing to be sympathetic if they are made aware of this invisible world. She said:

Your point is well made. You mentioned their “invisibility”…therein lies the problem. Their invisibility renders them “forgotten.” From now on I will pray especially for them. Churches should be encouraged to do so. All di while dem a pray fi leaders of the country…dem need fi pray fi seafarers daily. Honestly, it makes me really sad thinking about the conditions they face DAILY in the course of their jobs. For me, it’s one more thing to be thankful for…that I’m not a seafarer.

Perhaps the IMO might wish to resurrect that discourse on public relations for the maritime industry and lead that charge, this time ensuring that it does not fall by the wayside.


  1. Frankly the Day of the Seafarer is an insult to seafarers. We will ask them to sound their horns once again , like “hey look at us here 50 miles out from the center of town and no shore leave, no repatriation, while my owners are stealing my wages.”. All this does is wake up the poor bastards trying to get some rest. We all know seafarers work ten hours and more every day of the week then are required to sign fake documents to show to PSC authorities who turn a blind eye to breaches if international standards and abrogation of human rights. Go ahead and toot your horn and show us your fake tears on the Day of the Seafarer while so many still hold a knife to the seafarers throats in broad daylight. The industry skids are greased by exploitation and seafarers fear of blacklisting. This industry remains a human rights disgrace. Wake up Panama, Marshall Island Liberia and others.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I have never understood what this empty gesture is supposed to achieve. I live within earshot of a port. I am all too wearily familiar with the issues. But I have no idea what hearing a ship’s horn today would encourage me to do as opposed to when I might hear it on any other day. Let alone the majority of the townsfolk around me who remain ignorant to the issues. “Seafarers sound your horns to change your circumstances whilst those with the ACTUAL power to change your circumstances continue to do nothing other than patronise you.” Changing your circumstances for the better is simply not in their interests. That’s not pessimism. It’s experience. I’m sick of reading about maritime groups sitting around and pontificating about what needs to be done when many within the same groups are from organisations/authorities that continue to do nothing. That’s not ignoring that many work tirelessly to bring about change. But why should they have to? Why is it that affording many in this group of workers some basic humanity is an argument? Why should it have to be fought for? Because that’s what the industry and those ‘regulating’ it either prefer or allow. And because consumers choose not to open their eyes to the human cost associated with the cargoes they benefit from. If it’s hiding, it’s hiding in plain sight.

  2. It is often said that we, sea farers are gullible- I was termed naive by a land lubber way back and I do not think I have become wiser even after 25 years- so much for the sea farers- Peter is not far off the mark when he says that it is an insult- A Captain’s body could not be off loaded in whole of far east and the body goes to his home country Italy possibly 2 months after his demise lying possibly in the cold room of the ship which he commanded! There is one more waiting in the anchorage of a chinese port where everyone has refused entry and disembarking his body from the ship he commanded ! There is one more waiting in Suez Canal BITTER LAKE waiting to be crucified ! Rules are made based on commercial considerations- you are asking the master, owners and sea farers to adhere to the rules of MLC- If you do not increase the number, how can you stick to rules? May I raise the question as to whether the safe manning is given based on the ships equipment and whether the number can save the ship in case of emergency or is it taken into account the rules to be adhered to by MLC and also by the route/trade she is involved in? There is definitely a compromise on the safety especially the mental health of sea farers- Time for the world to wake up- let it become a movement to ensure that the invisibility goes away in the years to come.


  3. I was only recently introduced to the world of seafaring through the writings of my friend Dr. Carolyn Graham. Otherwise, like so many others I’d have remained completely oblivious to seafaring and it’s multitude of problems. Thank you,CG, for the illumination.

    Unfortunately, I am not optimistic about the future of seafarers, simply because the bottom line of organizations trumps everything. Captains of industry, shipping being no exception, seem to have never drunk the milk of human kindness, as evidenced by the way workers are treated. Why are good working conditions and organizational profitability mutually exclusive?
    Will there ever be an awakening that will result in brighter days for these people whose service is so necessary for our day-to-day survival.

  4. Great article. It is true, we are invisible. Seafarers have been at the forefront in the worldwide efforts to keep the supply chains open. Today, we will transport food to those ashore and also their fuel; all this while the borders are shut tight in our faces, no shore leave permitted and no crew change allowed. We are not seen.
    The wealthy countries hoard vaccines while seafarers from developing States are left to fend for themselves. If sounding the horn is all that we can do to wake the unreasonable ship owners and Administrators then sound we must. We shall be heard!
    At least, after working long hours with very little rest, for low wages we will return to a cramped cabin thinking that perhaps we woke a port official or ship owner.

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