YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | Seafarers’ rights?

Michael Grey | LLOYD’S LIST

SEAFARERS have a fairly unusual life in that their place of work also happens, for much of the year, to be where they live. You probably would not describe it as their home, for this implies a number of characteristics which a modern ship, with even the best of facilities, obviously does not have. A person can go into his or her home, shut the door and leave the world behind. The phrase “in the privacy of one’s own home” suggests a degree of freedom not available to a seafarer behind a closed cabin door.

SEAFARERS have a fairly unusual life in that their place of work also happens, for much of the year, to be where they live. You probably would not describe it as their home, for this implies a number of characteristics which a modern ship, with even the best of facilities, obviously does not have. A person can go into his or her home, shut the door and leave the world behind. The phrase “in the privacy of one’s own home” suggests a degree of freedom not available to a seafarer behind a closed cabin door.

Even off watch, a seafarer has to abide by the disciplinary codes of the ship. The seafarer’s leisure time must be monitored to ensure that rest is adequate, although nobody has yet to come up with a means of measuring how much rest time is composed of actual sleep. He or she cannot pour a large glass of something alcoholic if the ship is ‘dry’ and will be aware that even aboard ships that are more relaxed, an emergency might require the seafarer to leap nimbly into action, so there must be a degree of moderation.

A seafarer is never completely off-duty. Seafarers, unlike people fortunate enough not to live in a police state, also have to put up with the invasion of their privacy from various shore-side agencies and officials. It is one thing to put up with the master’s weekly inspection, which it can be argued is for everyone’s good aboard that ship, but seafarers also have to endure an increasing amount of interference from shore-side authorities, which can be both intrusive and unpleasant.

Nothing new about this, of course. In my day, it was the customs with whom we carried on a sort of battle of wits as they attempted to prevent us from evading duty on goods we had bought abroad. They were also mad keen on ensuring we did not have 50 cigarettes too many, or had stowed away a bottle of spirits for use on the coast, which was just plain silly, and guaranteed that we regarded them as the enemy, rather than protectors of the revenue.

It required the patience of a saint to endure without a sarcastic remark some customs erk rummaging through your possessions, grovelling through your clean and freshly ironed whites with his dirty fingernails, while you simmered gently. I still recall some armed quasi-military person in a US port subjecting the apprentices to a third degree interrogation, after he had barged into our cabin to search for citrus and found a forgotten orange. If it had not been forgotten, it would have been eaten!

We all had stories about ships in which the generator crankcase was half full of bottles of gin for our parties, or of how some young chap had been asked the time by some person on the quay, who seized him by the wrist and asked him whether duty had been paid on the watch he obligingly used to answer his question. If they were not actually the enemy, you could hardly call the customs our friends.

But that was before the days of international drug smuggling, and the menace of the narcotics cartels. Sensible customs authorities tried a little harder to be more friendly and reasonable, recognising that law-abiding seafarers were a very good defence against these international criminals and there were more important targets than the odd bootleg bottle of scotch. Others went on very much as before, subjecting seafarers to additional nastiness as they rummaged through their belongings, looking for an excuse to show their powers, or, in more corrupt regimes, to make some serious money.

There were seafarers arrested and thrown in the slammer for having, among their possessions, their own prescription medicines. There have been people threatened and fined for a couple of painkillers in their spongebag, while just recently the officers’ union Nautilus revealed that fewer than a third of ships calling into the Port of Hamburg carry the recommended painkilling medication morphine in their medical lockers, because of “concern about prosecution in foreign ports”.

Despite being recommended by the World Health Organisation as absolutely essential for the relief of severe pain, there are nations which do not accept that morphine should be on any visiting ship, so those aboard are condemned to suffer, if they are injured, greater pain from inadequate alternatives. This is disgraceful scandal, which, if it was anyone other than seafarers being treated in such a fashion, would attract all manner of public outrage.

Reasonable people might wonder what on earth visiting officials in port are doing rummaging around the medical lockers of foreign-flag ships, telling those aboard which medicines may or may not be carried, or can be prescribed by the flag states which have responsibility for oversight in this matter? As long as the documentation describing the contents of the medical locker reflect the actual contents and the medicines contained therein, what conceivable business is it of a port state, anyway? Why is not the flag state creating merry hell on behalf of its ship and those aboard it, if necessary at the highest diplomatic level?

Flag states take their registration fees, and it would be reasonable to assume that consular protection against this sort of interference in the management of ships flying the flag would be a high priority, which would encourage shipowners to register their ships in such an energetic jurisdiction. But maybe this is too much to ask.

The latest nonsense which seafarers are having to put up with is police and customs stamping aboard to examine the contents of personal computers, mobile telephones and other electronic equipment, to discover whether there might be pornographic material or paedophile pornography held in this equipment. Now it is one thing for the law enforcement authorities to conduct such searches, under warrant and as a result of information. It is something else entirely for the authorities to be conducting ‘fishing expeditions’ on a random basis, which they would not be able to undertake ashore, at least in most democratic countries.

You could argue that the customs who were strewing our possessions around our cabins as they strove to detect excess cigarettes were similarly ‘fishing’, and never had to justify themselves and the electronic ‘rummagers’ are merely extrapolating this traditional behaviour. While any decent seafarers would utterly deplore the actions of electronic paedophiles, they, like you or I in our homes ashore, would take a dim view of being suspected of such a crime, which is implied by the random nature of this searching.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” was the watchword of all manner of extreme 20th century regimes, many of which are now consigned to history. Sadly it has been transposed to all manner of increasingly illiberal behaviour by plenty of 21st century authorities, which love to demand that we prove that we are not paedophiles, terrorists, racists and various thought-criminals. But ashore we can at least kick up a stink about the intrusions of the state in our lives. We can enlist the support of our democratic representatives, or even write to the newspapers, and encourage a campaign. We might just be able to change our government to one that is rather less prescriptive, if the cause is just and we really apply ourselves.

SEAFARERS, who are treated appallingly by authorities, who seem to assume greater powers with every successive year, do not enjoy the same access to such powerful defence. Which is why the authorities feel free to treat them badly, as they know that tomorrow, the ship will be gone and there will be another vessel with another crew on the berth, which they can bully to their hearts’ content. It is notable, is it not, that tourists, or cruise passengers, tend to be treated with rather greater respect than people who travel at sea as their profession. This ought to prove something, although I am not sure what.

I suppose all this is part of the Respect Agenda, which ought to be an integral part of the International Maritime Organization’s Year of the Seafarer. In the old days, sailing directions and pilots, if not the charts themselves, would indicate where coasts were hostile, and where mariners should be on their guard against the excesses of the natives, who had been identified as unfriendly. You could argue that this was a genuinely useful service, and saved the lives of many mariners who would otherwise have been held to ransom (nothing much changed there), or would end up as the main course at the chief’s feast.

There is a good case for the publication of a more up to date guide to world ports, which can offer something of a clue to the behaviour of the local authorities to visiting seafarers. If the authorities in a particular port or country routinely behave like swine, we should not beat about the bush and pretend they are helpful and ‘customer-focused’, as their literature no doubt effusively claims. Let’s hear the seafarers’ endorsement, or the lack of it.


Filed under Articles, Lloyd's List

2 responses to “YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | Seafarers’ rights?

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  2. Pingback: Seafarers: Pros or Cons? | Our World Collective

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