Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Difficulties of Life on an Ocean Freighter Described by Professor

Account of the Hardships of Seafarers in Race for Award
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – The book which Professor Helen Sampson set out to write seemingly proved a little more time consuming than she had first anticipated, involving her in a series of sea voyages as opposed to the single trip on a cargo vessel she had envisaged would be necessary. The result of her labours however has already gained her an inaugural BBC Radio Four ‘Thinking Allowed’ Award, and now her work, illustrating the hardships and social pressures which accompany the life of many seafarers on ocean going freighters, has been shortlisted for the Mountbatten Maritime Award, to be announced on 5 November.

The Professor’s book, ‘International Seafarers and Transnationalism in the Twenty-First Century’, was published in her 14th year at the Seafarers International Research Centre, began as one voyage which soon became nine, taking her to the Mediterranean, the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Norway, Canada, and through the Panama Canal. The work is based on the first five of these on two tankers, two refrigerated ships and a rusty bulk carrier, which she describes as ‘tin cans on a vast ocean wilderness.’

Professor Sampson insists the book is not a critique of the shipping industry, but focuses on the lives of seafarers and their families on and off ships. She points out that, despite modern technology making it much easier for crew to maintain contact with family and friends, it seems there is still the element of separation which those working at sea have often found unacceptable. She comments:

“I met some remarkable people. One captain had gone to sea as a deck boy at 14 and had educated himself in his leave time to get on. He loved his job, and he loved the sea. He also illustrated the separation – he wasn’t divorced from his wife, they had learned to live quite separately, but they were clearly on parallel lines (different tracks). He typifies a deeper sense of loss. I end the book by saying that seafarers seem to be justified in saying their lives are a sacrifice, because they are. A lot of them go to sea to make money for their families, but in doing so they become separate from them. That is a human tragedy.

“It’s hard to go home after nine months at sea and reintegrate into a family and community. After several contracts, you become a stranger. Families adjust to life without you. And many seafarers are excluded from their host society. In Germany, for instance, seafarers from abroad were often excluded. To qualify for German social security benefits, they could only work on German-flagged ships. These are increasingly rare, as shipping companies have ‘flagged out’ to cheaper nations. So, in effect, many seafarers would be sitting around waiting for a ship that never sailed in: leading impoverished lives in long-term unemployment, sending money home, but not active in German society as voters or spenders, living in seaman’s hostels, isolated and afraid to go out.

“Before I got involved, I’d never thought about life at sea. On the voyages, I kept a diary and looked at the interaction between nationalities, talking to people informally, capturing observations and supplementing the notes with formal interviews. The book shows the experience for Northern European seafarers, especially officers, is still positive. Most Northern European seafarers are on contracts of equal time on board, and equal time off, and they seem able to maintain the work-life balance because time at home is quality time. If it’s balanced, the job of an officer can be very rewarding. But the industry is competitive, and under financial pressure. Companies have increasingly ‘flagged out,’ and recruit more and more labour from developing countries, paying lower wages and adjusting terms and conditions.

“Ratings are paid less-well than officers and are under pressure to take voyages of around nine to ten months duration. After a short time at home they find that their funds are exhausted and they have to return to sea, if they can find an opportunity. This makes companies feel that seafarers want to work this way, but seafarers only want it because the structure of the industry. Many seafarers leave as soon as they think they can afford to, many officers leave after reaching captain, or after 10 years at sea, taking their skills with them.”

International Seafarers and Transnationalism in the Twenty-First Century is published by Manchester University Press (MUP) in the series New Ethnographies (ISBN 978-0719095535, price £14.99).

The Mountbatten Maritime Award is made to the person who, in the opinion of the Awards Committee, is the author of the work of literature that contributes most significantly to public awareness of maritime issues.