We did nothing for seafarers

(Trigger warning – this article contains descriptions of assault)

By now the 25 June is pretty much ingrained in my mind as the International Day of the Seafarers having literally jumped on board from its inception when we attempted to create a Flash Mob in different areas around the country. We also launched the South African Seafarers’ Awards with the assistance of the South African Maritime Safety Authority.

So, believe me when I say, the date was high on my agenda this year as per usual. We were planning a maritime breakfast to raise funds. We even had (in my humble opinion) a moving tribute planned to start the event followed by a fun live quiz.

But as the date crept closer and closer on my calendar I realised this was more about our brand and becoming embroiled in the tide to outdo what everyone else had planned. And I realised that many of these tokens do not really do anything for the actual seafarers beyond highlighting the fact that there is a problem here that a symbolic gesture does not have the power to fix.

A conference highlighting the problem does just that; and then repackages itself for the following year to do the same. Holding up placards with messages of support and even our own wonderful conceptual breakfast plans do nothing for seafarers.

For me the most significant responses on the day were the seafarers telling their stories. The sad reality, however, is that these are largely circulated within the maritime domain and do not actually serve to navigate the message into the broader public who know little about the struggles these men and women face.

So we did nothing for seafarers on the 25 June this year. Quite honestly, I was disillusioned by the continuation of shocking incidents that they are facing. Recently, however, the mainstream press has covered the case being made against Maersk.

In fact, the actions of the two women, who are currently taking on the shipping giant, Maersk, for initially turning a blind eye to severe sexual harassment and assault while cadets on board their ships, are probably doing more for seafarers than any of the talkshops held internationally could have achieved.

One of the women, now identified as Hope Hicks, has publicly described how she was raped by her superior officer while serving as an engine cadet. The second woman was so traumatised on board that she slept with a knife in case she needed to protect herself during the night.

Interestingly in 2010 the shipping company was sued for a similar reason by a male crew member who was allegedly gang raped by South Korean police in 2008. According to newspaper reports from that time, when he reported it to the Captain, he was told to go to his cabin. Upon waking up later, he once again approached the Captain who said his story was too incredible to be believed. There was some controversy over the version of events at the time, but ultimately, he was awarded a financial compensation by a jury.

By now many have read or seen the countless media reports exposing a culture of assault and silence within the merchant marine. And despite Maersk’s decision to suspend and fire five crewmembers following an internal investigation – it seems that more needs to be done. Fortunately, others believe so too.

An interesting article published by Federal News Network in December last year notes that the US Merchant Marine Academy has suspended the programme that puts students at sea for a year following the reports of sexual assaults of students. In addition, the Academy has been tasked to establish a plan for dealing with this significant problem.

An even more heartening development has been the establishment of Maritime Legal Aid and Advocacy by Ryan Melogy – himself an ex-seafarer and now a qualified lawyer who also experienced sexual assault on one of Maersk’s vessels during his career.

Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organisation fighting for the human rights of seafarers and fighting to change the maritime industry.

In 2019 another organisation, Safer Waves, was launched to provide support to seafarers who were experiencing sexual assault, harassment and discrimination on board. In an attempt to get a better understanding of the prevalence of the problem they undertook a survey in 2020 and the results speak for themselves – as do the stories that are related on their site. They provide useful advice and offer a helpline to those experiencing unwanted attention at sea.

Sexual assault is, of course, not the only type of abuse that seafarers face at sea. A visit to the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance (ISWAN) website highlights many more challenges. From social isolation, abandonment, arrest and more – it is abundantly clear that the efforts within the maritime sector need to go beyond posting on social media platforms to show that they support the International Day of the Seafarer.

Because, unless they are actively helping change the onboard culture for the betterment of all seafarers, they are really doing nothing for seafarers.  

Locally on the African continent there are disparate groups of individuals and associations hoping to make a difference – but each seems to have its own agenda as well as “brand” that it wants to promote. It’s time to truly collaborate. We can do more together. What is the African proverb? “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”