Tuesday June 25th is International Day of the Seafarer, this year promoting gender equality at sea, and highlighting the achievements of women.
The Brisbane Mission to Seafarers dates back to the late 1800’s, starting life in a house in Petrie Bight (the area of land located near Customs House and under the northern part of the Story Bridge). In those days there was an emphasis on providing accommodation for sailors, as they could often be in port for up to a month.
Ross Nicholls (pictured above with Volunteers Supervisor Heather Turner) is the President of the Brisbane Mission to Seafarers, and says that over the years the organisation has adapted to meet the changing needs of seafarers.
“Around 50 or 60 years ago there was a real social element, they provided somewhere to eat, dance, and recognise the hard life of those at sea. Because they were in port so long the mission could build relationships. Today a turnaround time for a ship is somewhere between eight and twenty four hours.”
“In many cases the seafarers only get a few hours to come ashore, so that social engagement’s not there.”
These days the role of the mission’s Seafarers Centre at the Port of Brisbane is providing for the needs of the modern maritime worker. They run a small shop selling personal items, snacks as well as souvenirs and gifts for family members. The mission also has a library and chapel providing spaces for quality personal time. They provide entertainment and recreation options, as well as the all important wi-fi for catching up with family members via Skype or FaceTime. The centre also operates a bus which can take seafarers to wherever they would like to go – shopping is a popular option.
Ross says that when someone has been at sea for six months often they just want some peace and quiet.
“All they want to do is sit out amongst trees, listen to birds, look at flowers, and enjoy some silence, relative to a ships atmosphere.”
A Change in the Workforce
The face of the seafarer has changed over the decades. In the past a ships crew was made up of workers from traditional seafaring nations, but Ross says these days shipping companies are looking for the lowest operational costs.
“Today the seafarer is a commodity, and like all manufacturing the companies are looking to reduce costs. They’re looking for staff for their ships from the lowest cost labour providing nations.”
“The modern seafarers are predominantly from the Philippines, China, Eastern Europe and India.”
Ross says that this push to drive costs down can lead to exploitation of the workers. Some of the cases the Brisbane Mission to Seafarers have seen include crew members having to pay for their own food and water, having inadequate rest periods, no internet access to able to contact loved ones, and in the worst cases having to pay the captain for their time spent on board.
But Ross states that it’s not all bad news – “there are some exceptionally good ship owners out there that look after their crew, providing wi-fi, good food, adequate rest and more importantly appropriate working conditions.”
A Home Away From Home
Heather Turner is the Volunteers Supervisor and says that it’s important to have a welcoming atmosphere.
“We want the seafarers to know that there is someone that loves and cares about them.”
“Our team of 60 volunteers gives their time and effort to make life a little better for seafarers who live with quite difficult conditions on board their ships.”
In 2018 the Brisbane mission was awarded the International Seafarer Centre of the Year, in recognition of the support the centre provides. This award is given out by the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network, and is decided by votes from seafarers themselves.
Ross said that it was very satisfying to win the award, as it was a David vs Goliath story.
“The Port of Brisbane was up against some heavy hitters in the ports of Hamburg and Los Angeles. One of the things we were recognised for is that we’re a home away from home. We try and embrace everyone who comes here, and support them in any way we can. It was a great reward for all our volunteers who provide that human warmth and a smile to the seafarer.”
How You Can Help
There’s a couple of ways you can ‘get on board’ with the work of the mission – the obvious one is to become a volunteer. Heather says that the volunteers are a tight knit unit.
“It’s like a big family, and has a warm, fuzzy type feeling. That spills over into the atmosphere for the seafarers when they come in.”
But if you don’t have time to volunteer there’s another way you can support the work of the mission. One of the services on offer for seafarers is that of a free beanie, and is heavily supported by the mission’s affiliation with the Anglican Church. Ross mentions that many parishes are active with their knitting!
“We give away around 8000 beanies a year, and we couldn’t do that without a brigade of knitters out there working tirelessly to support us.”
The Annual Seafarers Church Service will be held at St John’s Cathedral in the city at 11.30am on Sunday 8th September. This service is a must for those who have connections to the sea or are interested in supporting the 1.5 million seafarers around the world.