With so much talk about seafarers’ rights, one might miss the bigger picture and overlook other cases of human exploitation. Not the least is child labour, which French painter Fernand Pelez (1843–1913) poignantly depicted in A Martyr – The Violet Vendor, 1885 (pictured above).
The problem of child labour continues to this day. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), some 168 million child labourers worldwide are “toiling in sweatshops and mines, on construction sites and on farms”. This is more than a hundred times the 1.6 million seafarers estimated to be serving on board merchant ships trading internationally.
The scourge of modern slavery is no less shocking. The ILO puts the number of its victims at any given time in 2016 at 40.3 million people. Of this figure, 24.9 million were in forced labour as domestic workers and workers in other sectors, including the sex industry. Another 15.4 million were in forced marriage.
And let no one forget the plight of fishermen. Their exploitation by operators of Thai and Irish fishing vessels has been widely reported. It has been written about by academics and highlighted in news footages and documentary films.
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So what is so special about seafarers? Nothing really. Humans are exploited everywhere, in every industry, on land and at sea. However, there are some things about the exploitation of seafarers that make it interesting and particularly egregious:
Ship officers are college-educated and typically have a baccalaureate degree in marine transportation or marine engineering. Officer or rating, seafarers are professionals who are certificated according to international standards.
Seafarers from developing countries earn in US dollars. They are generally better off than their countrymen who work on shore. This makes them a prime target for all kinds of predators.
The whole regulatory framework for the merchant marine profession and the vast amount of training required of seafarers have added impetus to their exploitation.
The words of American writer Helen Keller in her 1929 book, We Bereaved, may offer some consolation to seafarers and everyone else who is suffering because of the avarice of men:
We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world — the company of those who have known suffering. When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance, and, inevitably, we will feel about us their arms, their sympathy, their understanding.
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