Seafarers – front-line environmental guardians

At work on deck

The importance of oceans to human life is the stuff of primary school lessons. They cover three quarters of the planet, produce most of our oxygen, and absorb the majority of atmospheric carbon. Half the world’s population lives in the coastal zone; oceans are a vital source of food; and marine health underpins our weather.

The sea is, quite rightly, protected by laws, institutions and international treaties. It is seafarers, however, who are the most numerous and arguably the most significant guardians of the sea. They are responsible for moving $12 trillion worth of goods in containers and nearly two billion tonnes of crude oil on the surface of these vulnerable waters. So, the decisions that seafarers make, both large and small, are critical to ensuring that we all continue to benefit from our greatest natural resource.

Conventions and regulations governing how ships should operate that safeguard the environment resemble an alphabet soup of acronyms and initials. How they are applied, however, in ports, oceans and shipping channels around the world is a product of millions of decisions made by ordinary, often exhausted humans.

Captain Pankaj Bhargava spent 35 years at sea, 12 as a ship’s master working for companies such as Teekay, BP, Maersk, OMI and Seaarland. He lists numerous, every-day examples of ways that he has seen ships damage the oceans.

In a Latvian port, for example, he saw oil sprayed into the sea when a hose was switched from supplying one tank to another. Such a spillage, can lead to further issues as oil soaks into a ships hawser (the very thick ropes used to tie up ships), which then leach oil wherever they make contact with the water. In a US port, Bhargava noticed that heavy rain had caused hydraulic oil to flood from a mooring winch and cascade down the ships side. Elsewhere, badly stowed maintenance oils polluted a harbour.

Incidents of this kind pale in emotional impact beside tragedies such as those that befell Torrey Canyon, Exxon Valdez or an Amoco Cadiz. The cumulative effect of apparently minor mistakes is arguably more significant – not least as minor incidents are rarely followed by ‘clean up’ operations.

“Most of these incidents (that I have described) were a product of human error resulting from lack of knowledge to handle engine room machinery or while handling deck machinery equipment and procedures,” says Bhargava. “Any ship is only as good as its crew”.

The professionalism of seafarers is something on which we all depend. When it comes to motivating tens of thousands of seafarers to go the extra mile on our behalf, consider for a moment what we provide by way of incentives?

An able seafarer’s (AB) global basic minimum wage is currently equivalent just £2.12 an hour – coupled with which, most are away from their families for most of the working year, undertake dangerous, and arduous work, and often go for months on end without shore leave.

Norwegian anthropologist Gunnar Lamvik has spent much of his professional life studying seafarers – particularly those from the Philippines. He has interviewed more than 150 and spent several months on board ships over a couple of decades. He paints a complex picture of their life at sea, but says that it is very common for seafarers to speak of their ships as ‘prisons’ and the time the voyages for which they have signed on as ‘sentences’.

“It became apparent to me during my field work that seafarers see themselves (as occupying) a deprived and secluded universe: a place which might leave you with the sense of being separated from real life”, he says. “Some of the seafarers I met instructed their wives not to give them any negative news since they were unable to respond anyway”.

If Lamvik is right, it begs the question, what can be done to better motivate those who endure such hardships?

A recent study by three British Professors of Economics, suggests a potential answer.  Marian Rizov, Richard Croucher, and Thomas Lange crunched aggregate output data from the entire British economy after the adoption of the National Minimum Wage in 1999.

“Our analysis illustrates that minimum wages positively affected (aggregate productivity) in low-paying sectors,” they wrote in the British Journal of Management. “These findings highlight increased wage incentive effects. (Increasing minimum wages can) be productivity enhancing”.

Their evidence buttresses what has become increasingly mainstream economic thinking. Janet Yellen was, until recently, head of the United States Federal Reserve Bank. Working with her husband, the noble-prize-winning economist George Akerlof, she concluded: “if people do not get what they think they deserve, they get angry. Workers who receive less than what they perceive to be a fair wage will purposely work less hard as a way to take revenge on their employer.’

No one would suggest that seafarers would deliberately damage the marine environment, however angry they felt. Most are passionately committed to the seas that provide so much of their living environment. Given how much our planet relies on the assiduousness with which seafarers undertake their work, it does beg the question, is it wise or sensible for them to be rewarded so poorly?

Let’s hope that the world wakes up to this before poverty pay is exposed as a catastrophic false economy. Seafarers demonstrate their commitment to the marine environment through the way they do their work. The time has surely come for us to demonstrate how we value that work by ensuring that they receive something approaching a decent wage?

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