Seafarers are backbone of Malaysian maritime industry

International Day of Seafarer 2022. Malaysian seafarers then and now.

By Dr. Izyan Munirah Mohd Zaideen, senior lecturer at Faculty of Maritime Studies, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu; and Captain Mohd Faizal Ramli, Offshore Oil and Gas Marine Specialist, seafarer and alumni of the Malaysian Maritime Academy (ALAM).

Due to Malaysia’s strategic location at the crossroads of Asian trade routes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the government gives priority to sea transportation as maritime commerce is crucial to economic development. 

Significantly increased freight volumes must be managed securely and efficiently between origin and destination, necessitating the hiring of skilled seafarers. With merchant ships carrying 85 to 90 percent of global trade and the maritime sector operating at breakneck speed, it is difficult to imagine life as we know it without the participation of seafarers. 

Under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), June 25 is celebrated annually as the International Day of the Seafarer. The International Day of the Seafarer is a wonderful opportunity to promote awareness of the critical role that seafarers play and educate the public about the importance of seafarers, who keep the world’s commodities moving behind the scenes. 

Since the inaugural commemoration on June 25, 2011, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and seafarers have gone a long way in publicising the contribution seafarers make to the globe and global trade, which sometimes comes at a high cost to themselves and their families.

The annual celebration is deemed a success by many seafarers throughout the world for removing the veil of secrecy and highlighting the jobs of the unsung heroes. Every seafarer’s voyage is unique, yet they all confront comparable obstacles, and mental health management is one of the most serious concerns. Unlike most other jobs, sailing requires individuals to leave home and spend extended amounts of time working at sea, away from regular life.

Past and present

The four basic pillars of international maritime law, i.e., Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the Convention for Prevention of Marine Pollution (MARPOL), the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW), and the ILO Maritime Labor Convention (MLC), are now universally recognized and practised, representing a substantial improvement over the past 10 to 20 years.  

STCW is a comprehensive set of international regulations intended to ensure that the highest standards of seafarer competence are maintained globally. STCW sets a new standard for competency, shipboard leadership, security training, refresher training, medical and mandatory rest hours as harmonized with the MLC.

The competence of seafarers is the most critical factor in the safe and efficient operation of ships and has a direct impact on the safety of life at sea and the protection of the marine environment. Seafarers are among the most fundamental components; without them, the flow of goods and international trade would halt, rendering them indispensable.

Previously, while technology revolutionized vessel navigational safety, having technology such as electronic charts instead of paper charts was considered a luxury. As an alternative to paper nautical charts, there is now the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS).

ECDIS is an IMO-compliant geographic information system used for nautical navigation. ECDIS is a comprehensive, safety-critical software-based system with several display and integration options.

ECDIS is now regarded as a standard for some types of ships, considerably improving navigation safety and reducing the navigation officer’s effort in manual chart correction. Also, using artificial intelligence, big data, and the Internet of Things, the industry is trying to make ocean-going autonomous ships a reality.

Traditionally, after the ship departs port, seafarers are cut off from the outside world. Today, the vessel relies on information and communication technology to keep the lines of communication open to the outside world.

With data transfer feasible onboard and ashore regardless of the ship’s position, crews are now able to remain in contact with their families and friends. Internet access should be considered a basic human right since it allows seafarers to communicate with loved ones back home while they are at sea. In fact, internet access on board is proven to boost the mental health and general welfare of seafarers.

Obstacles and challenges

As the guardian of the busy Malacca Strait, which more than 90,000 ships pass through every year, Malaysia took action on important issues during the pandemic.

Seafarers are already working in difficult conditions. However, their lives are made more difficult by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the importance of seafarers is undervalued, resulting in a lack of support. The pandemic has shown how much the world has relied on seafarers.

The Covid-19 outbreak highlighted the predicament of seafarers, and without a doubt, the many local seafarers are still struggling post-pandemic. Many restrictions remain in force, making it difficult for seafarers.

Seafarers are no longer able to enjoy shore leave, have to undergo prolonged quarantine, which is typically unpaid when signing on and off, and have to follow stringent procedures of embarking or disembarking the ship.

Another pressing issue is that Malaysian Peninsular seafarers are facing delay in work permit application in Sabah and Sarawak, both of which are states within Malaysia. They have to compete with and are not given any priority over foreign seafarers in Sabah and Sarawak. In fact, Peninsular Malaysian seafarers must wait around two to three months to acquire a work visa there, which formerly took approximately one to two weeks.

Many Malaysian seafarers never criticize their fellow seafarers based on nationality.  They view themselves as a tiny family aboard and work amicably throughout the contract. However, with this current issue in Sabah and Sarawak, a rift is threatening unity in this once tightknit seafaring community.

Other issues faced by Malaysian seafarers included low wage, which does not even correspond to the growth in living costs, and banks denying loans for them to buy asset such as a house.  If left unaddressed, all these factors are making a career in seafaring unattractive to potential candidates and are also driving current seafarers to look for other jobs.  Eventually, it is expected to result in a shortage of skilled seafarers in the coming years.

A way forward 

The Malaysian government, maritime authorities and all stakeholders should draw lessons from Covid-19 pandemic and take action to help seafarers in areas of abandonment, repatriation, unpaid salaries and quarantine.  Importantly, Malaysia, which has one of the largest international ports in the world, should lead by example and designate seafarers as crucial workers. 

Malaysian seafarers have given the feedback that they hope the government would eliminate taxes for seafarers who are aboard a ship for longer than two months. Some other feedback included to abolish the need for Malaysian Peninsular seafarers to apply work permits in Sabah and Sarawak, reduce the influx of foreign seafarers there, and to review the pay level of Malaysian seafarers to be on par with those from other countries such as Brunei and Singapore, and to have policies to facilitate bank lending.

The success of Malaysia’s maritime industry is dependent on the talents, contributions and sacrifices of seafarers. Therefore, more concrete help from the government should be given to seafarers to bolster the growth of the maritime industry, which is the economic and commercial backbone of the country.

Today is the day for Malaysia to honor Malaysian seafarers.  Seafarers’ dedication and hard work have enabled international trade, even in times of crisis.  It is a time to express how much seafarers mean to the country and the entire world.

Photo credit: iStock/ Iam Anupong

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