Seafarers’ rights in the mechanistic world of shipping

Seafarers’ rights in the mechanistic world of shipping

Seafarers have had the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) fighting for their rights since its founding in 1896. ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, aims to advance the same rights. And lest anyone forget, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still in place for the humane treatment of all peoples regardless of race or religion. In light of all this, why are seafarers still being treated badly as if the ITF and human rights never existed?

I agree with the plain answer most folks would give: human greed lies at the heart of the problem. How else does one explain the fact that crewing agents in Manila shamelessly steal from the dollar remittances of seafarers? Or why the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is selling copies of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978? (in contrast, the International Labour Organization provides free online access to the full texts of all ILO conventions). Human greed, especially the corporate kind, knows no bounds. As the Roman satiric poet Juvenal wrote: “The love of pelf increases with the pelf.”

However, there seems to be more to the exploitation of seafarers than mere greed for money. I believe it has to do with the nature of 21st-century shipping itself. We are dealing with an industry in which machines increasingly stand front and center above humans. The old world of shipping which inspired great works of art and literature about the sea and the human spirit is no more. Today, it is all about the Machine and its two demigods, Efficiency and Profit.

All this has given rise to a mechanistic view of the shipping world which tends to objectify seafarers. When one regards another person as a thing, it is easier to mistreat that person without suffering a pang of conscience. One loses sight of the humanity of the other. Such objectification has been epitomised in the popular maritime catchphrase “the human element”. I have been criticised for questioning the use of the term, which I find too cold. Human element? It reminds me of the periodic table of elements invented by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.

1933 photo of German sailors and an accordion player on board the four-masted steel barque, Magdalene Vinnen. Courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum

When one regards another person as a thing, it is easier to mistreat that person without suffering a pang of conscience. One loses sight of the humanity of the other.

Perhaps the IMO and the training providers who love to refer to seafarers as “the human element” cannot be blamed for doing so. The mechanistic mindset is rather prevalent in today’s maritime world. Just consider the brouhaha over the problem of depression at sea. The maritime do-gooders seem to believe that “wellness training” will fix what is obviously a complex social and psychological issue. The international Christian charity, Sailors’ Society, even wants to make such training mandatory through an amendment of ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

The mechanistic view extends as well to marine safety with the IMO imposing more and more training requirements on seafarers. Way back in 2012, I wrote:

Could the problem be that the shipping world has adopted a mechanical approach to the whole issue (of safety culture) – with too much emphasis laid on systems and procedures and too little on their why and wherefore? Are seafarers being made to undergo more and more training in the hope that they would behave in certain predictable ways like Pavlov’s dog? Doesn’t the culture of safety come back to the question of values? And aren’t those values being eroded by the commercialism that is gripping many by the neck – shipowners who cut corners to reduce costs, maritime schools that exist mainly for profit and seafarers who only want to earn a living but have no real love for the life at sea?
(Read more: Long way to go for culture of safety)

“There is no end to machinery,” wrote the Scottish historian and political philosopher Thomas Carlyle in his iconoclastic 1829 essay, Signs of the Times. His words remain as true and ominous today as they were almost 200 years ago. Contemporary shipping is abuzz with talk about autonomous ships, which, if they do become a common reality, would represent the triumph of mechanism in the maritime sphere. Effaced by the almighty deity called Machine, seafarers would no longer be objectified. They would have become invisible — and there would be no more need to speak of seafarers’ rights. I wonder what the maritime charities and manning agents would be doing if ever that time comes.

~ Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Dutch marine art: great drawings of boats and ships

Dutch marine art: great drawings of boats and ships

Mention the Netherlands (or Holland) and some things immediately come to mind. Windmills, canals and dykes, tulips, clogs (called klompen by the Dutch and immortalised by Vincent van Gogh in his 1889 painting), and cheese. The list of Dutch cultural icons would not be complete without mentioning the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn and others too many to name here. I personally would add marine art. When it comes to nautical subjects, Dutch artists have earned a reputation as prolific virtuosos. Even their drawings of boats and ships are quite extraordinary, as the following works show.

Zeilschepen aangemeerd voor een stad, 1820–1872
Hendrik Abraham Klinkhamer (Dutch, 1810–1872) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Drawing is often regarded as a handmaid of painting — something an artist does as a kind of callisthenics, a study for some important work in oil on canvas. But that is not always the case. Klinkhamer’s drawing depicting some fishing vessels docked in a city can stand on its own as a complete work, a thing of beauty. Done in watercolour, pencil and ink, it reflects the Dutch love for boats and the sea.

Schipbreuk op een ruige zee, 1830–1860
Albertus van Beest (Dutch, 1820-1860) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Who says an artist cannot create drama without using colours? This pencil drawing by Dutch marine painter Albertus van Beest of a shipwreck in a rough sea calls to mind Rainbow by the Russian Romantic painter, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. It conveys the same sense of fear and danger as one gets from Aivazovsky’s 1873 oil painting.

Zeegezicht, 1830–1860
Albertus van Beest (Dutch, 1820-1860) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I find it curious that Albertus van Beest was able to create an atmosphere of calm using only ink on paper. Ah, but he was Dutch and an accomplished marine artist.

Zeilschepen met figuren op het water, 1830–1860
Albertus van Beest (Dutch, 1820–1860) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Albertus van Beest was not only a painter. He was also a draughtsman and a lithographer. This pencil drawing shows remarkable attention to detail and the deftness of a master.

Sailing Boat on the Seine at Asnières, 1887
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) / Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

“Drawing is the honesty of the art,” Salvador Dali once said. “There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” There is no doubt which one in the case of this pencil and chalk drawing by the great Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch post-Impressionist artist painted with the intensity of a mad lover, but he knew how to draw. He also had a fondness for the sea, fishermen and boats.

Read more: A legacy of love: fishermen in Vincent van Gogh’s art

Left: Drie in het water staande mannen halen een zeilboot naar de kant, 1860–1921 Right: Schepen op het water, 1860–1921
Adolf le Comte (Dutch, 1850–1921) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A drawing, such as these two works done in chalk on paper, can captivate with its simple charm. One can tell that Adolf le Comte’s hand did not hesitate. He drew with childlike freedom but with the confidence and discipline of a draughtsman and an art teacher.

The Battle of Dunkirk, 1659
Willem van de Velde I (Dutch, 1610/11–1693) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Dutch navy was a source of national pride, and Dutch artists celebrated its glory days in their works. The short Rijksmuseum note on Willem van de Velde I’s ink on canvas drawing is insightful:

In 1639 Maerten Harpertsz Tromp prevented the Spanish fleet from leaving the harbour at Dunkirk with a blockade of twelve ships. Van de Velde has depicted most of the Dutch vessels with their prows pointing towards the enemy armada. With a remarkable eye for detail, he rendered in pen the ships’ counters or transoms – the stern carvings from which the individual vessels can be identified.

Schets naar een model van een zeventiende eeuws Hollands fregat, 1827–1880
Willem Gruyter jr. (Dutch, 1817–1880) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The smoke of naval battles has long vanished along with those who fought in them. Yet, the past is never past. By paying homage to it, be it in the shape of a mighty frigate or a humble boat, Dutch artists have transformed the past into living specimens. They have bequeathed a cultural patrimony for the whole world to enjoy.

~ Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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12 most popular ways of exploiting seafarers

12 most popular ways of exploiting seafarers

Wage earners throughout the Third World are very often exploited and abused: miners, farmhands, factory workers, janitors, security guards, waiters, etc. What makes seafarers unique is that they earn in US dollars and are generally better off than ordinary land-based employees. This makes them prime targets for all sorts of predators. The following are some of the ways to exploit seafarers which unscrupulous parties have mastered:


1. Use maritime cadets as unpaid office help or domestic servants. Promise them they’ll eventually get to sail as apprentice-officers (even if it takes months for that day to come).

2. Delay the family allotments of your crew and invest the dollars in some short-term financial instrument. If the families start asking, just say your foreign principal has not yet remitted the money.

3. Use a lower exchange rate when converting seafarers’ dollar remittances to the local currency and keep the differential for yourself. Consider it as your service fee as a manning agent. It’s a form of thievery, but who cares?

4. Demand money from applicants for a shipboard posting. It’s illegal but you can do it discreetly under the table.

5. If you’re the wife or child of a seafarer, enjoy spending his hard-earned money for things you don’t need. There’s more where it came from.

6. Adopt a double payroll scheme on board your fleet if you are a shipowner. The seafarers will sign two payrolls, one indicating higher salaries which they won’t, of course, receive. Just make sure the illicit practice is not discovered by ITF  (International Transport Workers’ Federation) inspectors.

7. Call for mandatory wellness training for seafarers if you are a maritime charity. Never mind if seafarers are already reeling from a training overload. Depression at sea is widespread, and addressing it is part of your charity mission.

8. Require ship officers to undergo unnecessary or redundant training courses. Tell them that it’s mandated by the STCW regulations.

9. Refer seafarers to favoured training centres and get commissions. In Manila, it’s called a “rebate” and not a kickback.

10. If you’re a maritime lawyer, file money claims on behalf of seafarers on a no-cure-no-pay basis (meaning, 30% or even 40% for your legal services and out-of-pocket expenses). Don’t just sit in your office. Actively chase after potential clients.

11. Require hotel personnel of passenger or cruise ships to undergo medical examinations more often than usual (once in a year). It’s good for their physical well-being and good for your pocket. 

12. Abandon your crew when your shipping company runs into financial difficulties. They are strong and hardy men. They should be able to take care of themselves whilst on board the abandoned ship.

“To depend on another’s nod for a livelihood is a sad destiny,” wrote the 1st century BC Latin writer, Publius Syrus. It is made even sadder for seafarers because there will never be a dearth of people who would exploit them — at sea or on land. Sometimes you begin to wonder why so many young men and women still want to become sailors.

~ Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Seeing the grandeur of cathedrals in seashells

Seeing the grandeur of cathedrals in seashells

Many have been awed by the Notre-Dame de Paris (pictured above in a 1912 painting by American artist Florence Vincent Robinson). Who wouldn’t be? This most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages wears the badge of antiquity (almost 200 years in the making, it was completed in 1345); has an imposing structure; and is breathtakingly beautiful.

Far fewer people, I suspect, would feel the same way when they look at seashells. Yet, despite their vastly smaller size, seashells can be as marvellous as any cathedral. As the following photographs and artworks show, they have a unique beauty that evokes a sense of wonder and even reverence.

Left: Interior view of a room inside the Notre-Dame, 2005. Photo by Tristan Nitot (licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0).
Right: Nautilus shell, 2016. Photo by Josch Nolte of Göttingen, Deutschland

The Notre-Dame has many interesting architectural details. Indeed, it is a masterpiece of technical design and engineering. However, what man can outdo Nature when it comes to artistic complexity and precision?

Left: Notre-Dame (façade),1860s. Photo by Édouard Baldus (French, 1813–1889) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Right: Shells, circa 1841. Illustration from Conchologia systematica, or Complete system of conchology: in which the Lepades and conchiferous Mollusca are described and classified according to their natural organization and habits by Lovell Reeve and G.B. Sowerby

Some 12 to 14 million people visit the Notre-Dame every year, making it Europe’s most visited historic monument. The cathedral’s sculptured façade alone is enough to pull in the crowds. It is exquisite, an architectural wonder. Even so, seashells with their infinite variety of shapes, textures and colours can give the French cultural icon a run for its money.

The Shell, 1650
Etching by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) / Art Institute of Chicago

Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter and printmaker, was fascinated with seashells. In fact, he had a large collection of them. In this etching, the mysterious beauty of a conus marmoreus (commonly known as “marbled cone”) shines through the wonderful interplay of light and shadow. Suddenly, we are confronted, not just with an artefact of nature, but with something akin to a sacred object inside a dimly lit cathedral.

Three Shells, Studio/Pacific Palisades, 1996
Photo by D. W. Mellor (American, born 1947) / Philadelphia Museum of Art

Seashells are actually living animals, part of the great animated world of the ocean. The empty shells people find on the beach were once part of a marine mollusc which had perished. Some of these shells date may back to centuries before the Notre-Dame cathedral was built. Life fades, beauty stays.

Shells and Marine Plants, 1809
Oil painting by Henricus Franciscus Wiertz (Dutch, 1784–1858) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

An assemblage of seashells can be as majestic as a cathedral. Alas, tourists would rather flock to a historic religious monument.

Neapolitan Fisherboy (Pêcheur napolitain à la coquille), 1857–after 1861
Sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875) / National Gallery of Art

“When you listen to a shell,” wrote Natalie Wolchover in the Live Science website, “you’re not really hearing the sound of the ocean. The shape of seashells just happens to make them great amplifiers of ambient noise.” True, but why let science restrain the imagination? Holding a seashell close to your ear will not only strike the musical chords of the ocean. If you’re in the mood, you might even hear some Baroque church music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

~ Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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Serdar Bayram: waterfront photography as metaphor

Serdar Bayram: waterfront photography as metaphor

Forget the malls and the museums. There is hardly any place in a town or city more interesting than the waterfront. It is here where one encounters life in the raw with all its piquant energy. Serdar Bayram (pictured above) has captured this quality in his photographs of Istanbul’s waterside scenes. I am pleased to share six of this gifted Turkish photographer’s works on the subject. Each one has a compelling directness and serves as a metaphor for life and the human condition. The first five were taken in 2015 and the last one in 2016.

Read more: Maritime photography à la espresso

© Serdar Bayram

This seabird appears entangled in a network of mooring lines. A closer look will show that it is adroitly perched on one of the ropes, preparing perhaps to catch a fish it had spotted under the water. The image may well symbolise man as he struggles to survive in life’s complex web of economic and political forces that he may not be aware of or fully comprehend.

© Serdar Bayram

Fishermen in oilskin jackets and sou’westers are shown working with a mammoth fishing net as though they were pulling aside a threater curtain to reveal a sunlit hillside landscape in the background. The contrast between light and dark and the range of textures are just remarkable. Bayram has created a wonderful picture of a hard life.

© Serdar Bayram

The harbour is haven for both ships and men, a refuge from the cruel sea. Bayram’s skillfully composed photograph reminds one of the changing tides and the rhytmn of life in general. It calls to mind these lines from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queene (1589-96):

Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.

© Serdar Bayram

Like the waterfront, life is dynamic and not always sunny. A squall can strike unexpectedly. One has to believe that the storm — even the emotional or spiritual kind — will blow over. All storms always do.

© Serdar Bayram

What could be more emblematic of life in the 21st century than this chaotic image of seagulls flying and screeching in the harbour? I am reminded of the lines from The Second Coming, a poem W.B. Yeats wrote in 1919 as an allegory about post-war Europe:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The challenge — and not just for writers, artists or photographers — is not only to make some sense of the chaos. It is to have faith that man, in spite of it all, will triumph in the end.

© Serdar Bayram

Life’s path is never straight; there are many twists and turns along the way. The thing is to keep moving forward. It is the law of physics and life. As Aristotle noted in his philosophical work, Physics: “The fulfilment of what exists potentially, in so far as it exists potentially, is motion.” To stay put, I would hasten to add, is a kind of death.

~ Barista Uno

The Marine Cafe Blog

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