President's Column: Piracy, Continued

July 2011

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More than two years have passed since the infamous attempted takeover by pirates of the SIU-crewed Maersk Alabama. Piracy wasn’t a new problem when the Alabama saga unfolded in April 2009, but for many people outside the maritime industry, it marked the first time they truly became aware of the crisis.

 

Much has changed since then, but Somali piracy itself arguably remains the top issue facing our industry around the globe. Attacks are increasing in a huge region that includes parts of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. Violence against mariners aboard captured vessels also is growing. Per-ship ransom amounts are up.

 

This month’s LOG includes several articles about piracy, and I encourage the membership to read them. We post regular updates about this topic on our web site as well, in addition to providing news at the monthly membership meetings.

For many years, the SIU has been very active in the battle to protect not only our own Seafarers but mariners around the world. To that end, we continue to work with other maritime unions, the U.S. Coast Guard, the State Department, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and others.


And we have made some progress beyond simply getting people to listen. Despite the increase in the number of attacks, fewer vessels are being boarded and captured. Many if not most vessels sailing in the high-risk areas successfully have implemented anti-piracy measures. Some carry armed security details, whether hired from the private sector or (depending on the cargo) provided by the military. It is very much worth noting that no ship carrying armed personnel has been captured.

Our position hasn’t changed from day one: We believe that the respective flag states should provide shipboard security. In fact, we also assert that flag states immediately should adopt legislation that enables each nation to prosecute and, if appropriate, imprison pirates.

On that note, I should add that the flag-of-convenience (FOC) or runaway-flag registries aren’t lifting a finger to help fight this battle. They remind me of employees in so-called right-to-work states who enjoy the benefits of a union contract but refuse to do their fair share by paying union dues. In this case, the runaway-flag ships are protected as much as possible by the traditional maritime states, but the FOC countries themselves aren’t helping.

It’s time for that to change. Solving this problem is going to require continued and expanded multinational efforts, and it will continue to involve public and private resources. It’s a complex situation, and the pirates – better described as waterborne terrorists, really – make it more so by rapidly adapting to many of the industry’s counter-measures.

The ITF put it succinctly last month in a Seafarers’ Section resolution that read in part: “No seafarers should have to risk their lives for their job.” That’s really the bottom line, and it underscores the importance of governments not losing sight of the fact that the victims of these attacks are mariners and their families – real people, not just statistics on a chart somewhere. As U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Kevin Cook put it last month at a maritime security forum hosted by the State Department, “When we talk about vessels being hijacked, we’re really talking about the crews.”

To help reinforce that point, the Save Our Seafarers campaign – extensively promoted here, on the SIU web site and at our hiring halls – is spotlighting individual mariners who’ve been attacked by pirates. Hopefully, their stories will spur more action to end this scourge, as will a recent report by a group named Oceans Beyond Piracy. Among other startling insights, the report stated that in 2010, more than 1,000 mariners were taken hostage by pirates (see story on page 5).

I’ve cited this comparison before, but it remains the best one I’ve read or heard when it comes to putting this battle into perspective: Imagine a report documenting the capture of 1,000 airline passengers and flight-crew personnel. Would the world let that happen?

Quite obviously, the answer is no, and the immediate conclusion should be that mariners deserve the same protections as any other workers.


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