On Sunday, the Catholic Church held a special day to remember the hard work and challenges surrounding the occupation of sailors and other maritime workers, who are responsible for transporting roughly 90 percent of the world’s goods.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, sent a message for “Sea Sunday” July 9, urging people to remember in prayer sailors and their families, who work under challenging conditions in order to make our lives better.
“In our daily lives, we are surrounded by and use many objects and products that at some stage of their journey towards us have been transported on vessels. It is difficult for us to imagine behind these objects the faces of the many seafarers who have secured a smooth sailing for the vessel to deliver these commodities to the port safely,” Cardinal Turkson wrote.
“On Sea Sunday we are invited to recognize and express our gratitude to this force of more than 1.5 million seafarers, (the majority of them coming from developing countries), who with their hard work and sacrifices are making our life more comfortable…”
Though sailors are indispensable to the transportation of the world’s goods, there are often many challenges to their dignity, alongside the many difficulties in their lives and the lives of their families, the cardinal pointed out.
He drew attention to five of these difficulties in particular, including the long periods away from their families and the increased risk of isolation and loneliness.
“In spite of the great progress in technology, which has improved communication between seafarers and their loved ones, the long months away from the family are still a huge sacrifice that often reflects negatively on family life,” he said.
“Mothers are left alone, forced to play multiple roles with children growing up with an absent father. It is important that in our pastoral ministry, we pay special attention to the families of seafarers by initiating and supporting the creation of seafarer’s wives groups to provide mutual care and assistance.”
Though social media and technology may give seafarers a greater connection to people around the world, he pointed out, on the other hand it may also create a greater distance from their fellow crew members.
This can lead to isolation, loneliness, and depression, which is a common ailment in this profession, illustrated by the sobering rates of suicide, the foremost cause of death among seafarers.
For those who work in maritime ministry, “our function especially during visits on board is to try to create a ‘human connection’ and strengthen the ‘human communication,’” Cardinal Turkson said.
Another challenge is the increase in security at ports, brought about by the rise in terrorism. This increase may restrict seafarers’ access to the port, keeping them from disembarking. It may also restrict the access of welfare visitors, preventing them from coming on board.
We understand the need for security for the protection of people and goods, Cardinal Turkson noted, but “on the other hand, we must make sure that no one will be discriminated against and prevented to go ashore because of nationality, race or religion.”
We must also “advocate for the fundamental right of the crews to ‘have access to shore-based facilities and services to secure their health and well-being,’” as per Maritime Labor Convention regulations.
Despite the minimum international requirements of the human and labor right of seafarers, crews may still be cheated out of their salary, exploited, abused in their work, unjustly criminalized for maritime accidents and even abandoned in foreign ports, Cardinal Turkson continued, calling on the maritime authorities to be vigilant in preventing these abuses.
And lastly, though the threat of piracy has decreased in recent years, the “danger of armed attacks and hijackings is still very high in some geographical areas.”
“We would like to invite the maritime community not to let down the guard and to implement all the necessary measures that will guarantee the safety and the protection not only of the cargo but most of all, of the crew.”
Apostleship of the Sea, or Stella Maris, is a Catholic organization which provides pastoral care for seafarers and their families. Their next World Congress, held every five years, will take place in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in October of this year.
The focus of the congress this year is fishermen and fishing, Cardinal Turkson said. Like seafarers, fishermen also spend a long time at sea. And despite being considered one of the most dangerous professions in the world, they still receive low wages and benefits.
The congress, with qualified speakers and presenters, will increase awareness of and attention to this issue and the issues of human trafficking and forced labor in fishing, as well as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.
“We will strengthen our network with the objective to increase cooperation between the Apostleship of the Sea of the different nations; we will share resources and best practices to develop specific skills, particularly in the fishing sector,” he concluded.
“Let us ask Mary, Star of the Sea, to sustain our service and dedication to seafarers, fishermen and their families and to protect all the people of the sea until they reach the ‘safe port’ of heaven.”