In the 21st century, the biggest challenge faced by shipping is not how to improve maritime safety or reduce piracy attacks. It is how to reclaim its humanity. Accidents you can prevent through crew training and the stricter enforcement of safety regulations. Piracy you can contain with naval might and the political will to prosecute captured pirates. But how do you deal with the commodification of seafarers and the placing of commercial interests above human relations and human values?

The latter trend was highlighted this year in the case of 22-year-old engineer cadet Dayra Wood, who died on board a Panama-flag product tanker. Her body was kept inside the ship’s refrigerator whilst the ship was allowed to sail on for 17 days. Obscene is the right word to describe the whole sordid affair. The living amongst seafarers aren’t spared from being treated like commodities. In Manila, the flunkey system has become an institution; even the unions use maritime cadets as unpaid office help, promising to give them shipboard slots. Nowadays, in corporate boardrooms and convention halls, seafarers are referred to as “the human element” instead of “human resource,” a phrase which at least suggests their intrisinsic value as humans.

Perchance the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, will usher in some drastic changes by highlighting and upholding the rights of seafarers. That will depend as much on shipowners complying with the MLC 2006 provisions as on seafarers understanding what their rights are in the first place. In the final analysis, human values cannot be legislated. They can only be nurtured, slowly but surely, through education and a change of heart in the people who call the shots in shipping. ~Barista Uno

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