Keep shipping in the public eye

Seafarers need to be continually recognised for the critical work they do

By Carly Fields

It took a pandemic for seafarers to become more visible to the world, but with Covid slipping from people’s radars, the industry urgently needs to take action to keep seafarers front and centre. We can’t wait for another crisis to improve shipping’s visibility, warns Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) president, Elpi Petraki.

Speaking to The Sea, Petraki highlights the introverted nature of the shipping industry before the pandemic. “We didn’t show ourselves to the world, we didn’t need advertising. However, Covid came and showed people who are not involved in the industry how important shipping is for everyone – for having electricity, for having food, and for other things that are important for our everyday lives.”

But this pre-pandemic introversion proved to be a problem. During the pandemic, governments not tuned into the importance of ships, their cargoes, and the seafarers that keep them moving, failed to provide the gateways needed for seafarers to travel back home or to re-join ships. With hindsight, Petraki says there is now an acceptance by industry leaders that our hidden nature means that when we need something, we are less likely to get it than other, more visible industries.

“What makes me sad is even after Covid, after we made people realise how important shipping was, I have had conversations with highly educated people with an understanding of the world, who still do not realise the importance of shipping,” Petraki says. “That has really shocked me because we evidently haven’t done enough.”

Awareness drive

For Petraki, maintaining visibility of the shipping industry and seafarers is all about raising awareness. The industry needs governments to continually ‘see’ shipping. This would help in all sorts of situations, including where seafarers have been abandoned and where there has been unfair criminalisation of seafarers.

“When people think of transport, shipping is not the first thing that comes into their mind. It’s planes, it’s trucks, it’s other things that they see in their everyday life,” Petraki said. “We need to be speaking more, and producing material to put out there and be seen by more people to make them more aware.”

She goes so far as to describe it as a “regret” that the world does not realise just how essential shipping is to our everyday lives and that seafarers are still not seen as essential workers.

But it’s not just about visibility; seafarers need to be heard as well as seen. The needs of seafarers have changed from 40 years ago. Then, Petraki says, people went to sea to be able to send money back home. Comfort and connectivity were not decisive factors. “Today, seafarers need to have a standard of life that was not considered before,” she says. “We need to recognise those needs and work towards achieving them.”

On the plus side, much has been done to improve safety and to offer psychological security and stability for seafarers. This change has been for the better, Petraki says, which will hopefully increase the attractiveness of seafaring as a career for young people in the future.

Dearth of cadetships

However, there are still challenges to overcome. “It is still not very easy for young cadets to find cadetships,” says Petraki, who is also chartering, operations and business development manager at ENEA Management Inc, a Greek shipping company that operates a fleet of specialised tankers. She is also vice president of the Hellenic Shortsea Shipowners Association.

This does depend on where they learn. “In some countries they have their own cadetships, whereas in others, cadets have to look for their own cadetship. This is the new reality. They are given the freedom to enrol in marine academies, but then in some cases they don’t find work for them.”

This is disappointing, especially when there is such an obvious need for raising the number of serving seafarers, she adds.

Another issue that is deterring female cadets from sticking with shipping is a perceived injustice in career progression. “I’m hearing that, sometimes, female cadets reach a level and then they are not promoted, but a man of the same age, that maybe went to maritime school with them, is promoted. This discouragement makes them leave the industry,” she says.

Added to this, female seafarers are entering what has traditionally been a male domain, yet their needs differ. Petraki says that it is therefore important for associations such as WISTA to speak with ship owners, operators, managers and crewing agents about these needs – because those organisations may not realise the nature of the problems.

For Petraki, adapting facilities and provisions on a ship to suit female seafarers is a comparatively easy thing to do. The harder task is changing behaviours and instilling respect regardless of gender.

“I cannot try to convince people to come to sea unless I’m sure the environment is correct, and safe for them,” Petraki says. “For me, we need to change behaviours and attitudes and have respect on board for the vessel to be safe. It would certainly be good to have more women at sea – it’s a great career for any kind of person to choose. But we need to be sure that it is safe for them.”

Good to talk

WISTA has a presence in 56 countries and its members come from all sectors of the industry, not only maritime, but also from logistics and trading. “We do really see the big picture,” Petraki says.

She praises the fact that nobody is afraid to raise these issues today, which wasn’t the case in the past. WISTA participates in cross-industry working groups that have open discussions about safe environments on board vessels, particularly with regards to harassment – physical or psychological – behaviour and bullying. “We join groups that are subgroups of the IMO, or other groups that talk about these things and we include our experienced members who are obviously seeing things first-hand. We encourage them to take part in the conversation so we can make a change,” she said.

“I don’t think anybody would say that they don’t want a safe environment on board vessels. Everybody would agree with that, but it is the finer details where people have differing opinions. So, we all need to talk together and make this useful for everybody.”

Change is already happening exactly because the industry started talking about these challenges. “Of course, there are difficulties, but we are talking about it, and this is the most important change for me – five years ago few marine academies would have invited WISTA to speak about women seafarers,” Petraki says.