Chukwu Obi, a crew on board a liner vessel, left home early March 2020, for a voyage that was originally scheduled to last for 35 days. Based on the initial plan in the contract he signed with the shipping company, he was supposed to return to his pregnant wife, who was due to put to bed by mid-April; sadly, he was at sea when his first child came into this world. But based on the restriction of movement occasioned by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic globally, Obi is uncertain when he will be able to see his son born almost two months ago.
Obi’s case is similar to many other seafarers, who are caught in the gale of the pandemic, which does not allow them to see their loved ones.
This is one of the many reasons stakeholders in the Nigerian maritime industry decided to celebrate seafarers for their efforts to keep global trade flowing, despite the threats of evil waves, sea pirates, and weather hazards amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Director-General, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dr. Bashir Jamoh, described them as “unsung heroes”, adding that policies are underway to improve the quality of training and certification, as well as remuneration for the country’s seafarers.
NIMASA, Women International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA), The Merchant Navy, Maritime Workers Union, among others, at separate times gathered physically and virtually to celebrate seafarers during the Day Of The Seafarers 2020.
Jamoh said: “Policies are in the pipeline to improve the quality of training and certificates we give to the seafarers. We are taking steps to standardise the curriculum of our training institutions in line with international standards.
“We are also working on increasing the remuneration of our seafarers. These policies would be announced as soon as we complete work on them.”
He said seafarers were among the most courageous people in the world, stressing that the theme for this year’s celebration, “Seafarers are Key Workers,” is a “testament to the fact that the world cannot do without seafarers. Seafarers hold the key to humanity’s survival on a day-to-day basis. They hold the key to our wellbeing in this time of COVID-19 period.”
Jamoh praised seafarers for sustaining the global supply chain, distributing urgently needed medical supplies with enormous risks to their lives and families.
“The seafarers are unsung heroes; they are also our invisible heroes. We see their handwork every day and everywhere in agricultural machinery, the food we eat, and the unbroken run of the manufacturing base, despite the global lockdown.”
He listed some of the challenges seafarers face amid the coronavirus pandemic, to include stringent work conditions in some countries, movement restrictions, lockdowns, crew change difficulties, fatigue and seasickness, and disruption of contracts.
He added: “As a regular, we have taken steps to alleviate the suffering of the seafarers. NIMASA was among the first government agencies to declare seafarers as being on essential duty, and we published this in a marine notice. We also issued COVID-19 guidelines to incoming ships towards ensuring that there is no importation of the virus by sea.
“NIMASA was the first in West Africa to issue a COVID-19 marine notice. We challenged ship-owners and employers of seafarers to take necessary proactive measures to lessen the pains of seafarers.”
The Director, Maritime Sector Consultant at Transbasin Limited, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Karen Ogidigben Onimisi, called on the international community to render necessary assistance to seafarers, especially during the COVID-19 era.
She commended NIMASA for supporting seafarers, and emphasised the need for Nigeria to develop post-pandemic measures to make the country’s seafarers internationally marketable and competitive.
She said: “Seafarers are part of the global supply chain and should have access to shore leave at ports in accordance with global regulations. There is also a need to look at improved ways to mitigate the challenges that COVID-19 has brought before us, commencing with digitalisation of our processes, including local training and licensing of Nigerian seafarers.”
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Labour Attaché, and Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations in Switzerland, Essah Aniefiok Etim, sued for better working conditions for seafarers.
He called for greater opportunities to make their voices heard, saying they should be encouraged through appropriate rewards and compensations.
Also, the Women International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) Nigeria, was excited to join other organisations in celebrating seafarers.
President, WISTA Nigeria, Mrs Eunice Ezeoke, said paying more attention to those who work on board the vessels is a key success factor to the global shipping industry.
She noted that the sea is not as friendly as it seems when seen from the shore, and despite technological advancement and innovations in ships, seafarers at sea are at the mercy of nature and shipping policies.
“Being at the frontline in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, they play an essential role in maintaining the global flow of vital goods, such as food, medicines and medical supplies,” she said.
Ezeoke added: “Today, over 90 per cent of global trade is done by sea, since it is still the most cost-effective way to transport goods. Globally, there are over 50,000 merchant ships trading internationally and the total cargo capacity of the world merchant shipping fleet is 1.75 billion deadweight tonnes (DWT). The people responsible for maintaining, running and operating the fleet are seafarers. There are over 1.6 million seafarers worldwide. How do we attract millennials to take up the profession, if not through greater support and improved welfare for seafarers?
“The vast majority of international trade is done by sea, due to relatively low costs and greater economy of space. If trade by sea were limited in some way, or stopped altogether, there is no way that the global economy would be able to function. In other words, we owe our current ways of life to those who travel the seas, who have to fight the toughest seas and roughest weather including piracy; yet they are resilient enough to accept this reality of their profession.
“Can you imagine what will happen to the world’s economy if seafarers refuse to work especially on piracy-prone routes?” she asked.
Chairman, Mission to Seafarers, Lagos, Adebayo Sarumi, said: “Today, the entire globe stops to pause, reflect and acknowledge the worth and sacrifice of the Seafarer. This includes the perils and risks emanating from the yawning seas, the emotional turmoil of being estranged from loved ones, and the multiple institutional challenges faced by today’s seafarer.
“These, form but part of the many reasons why we, at the Mission to Seafarers, Lagos, join multitudes of grateful beneficiaries in applauding your professionalism, your commitment and your dedication to duty.
“We stand with you as partners to your progress, and equally pledge our resources to charting a new course and facilitating a better experience for the seafarer. It is our resolve and surest conviction that better days lie ahead.”
The Secretary-General, International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Kitack Lim, in his message stressed the importance of the work seafarers do. “Just like other key workers, seafarers are on the front line in this global fight. They deserve our thanks. But they also need and deserve quick and decisive humanitarian action from governments everywhere, not just during the pandemic, but at all times.”