Making seafarers happier at sea

Alastair Fischbacher, chief executive of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, on a new onboard charter.

There can be no doubt that seafarers face vastly different challenges to most working men and women. They often spend long periods away from home and their families, in potentially harsh working conditions, and with unfamiliar crew mates. Recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of skilled seafarers to staff and operate vessels is an acute and growing concern.

Ensuring their safety, working rights and potential for progression is therefore key to making the shipping industry sustainable. Not only is this the right thing to do for the seafarers themselves, but it also enables the shipping industry to better market itself as an industry with attractive career opportunities.

Seafarer welfare is an issue that has been gaining more traction in recent years. The ratification of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) IN 2013 now covers 80 per cent of the global fleet, and has had a genuine impact in ensuring that the majority of seafarers have the right, at a minimum, to a basic safe and secure workplace, fair terms of employment and relatively decent living conditions.

This includes elements from minimum age, employment agreements and hours of work or rest, to payment of wages, paid annual leave and repatriation at the end of a contract. It also encompasses onboard medical care, accommodation, food and catering, as well as health and safety protection and accident prevention, the use of licensed private recruitment and placement services, and seafarers’ complaints handling.

While this progress is to be applauded, there is certainly more that can be done to raise standards on a global basis beyond the minimum of the MLC mandatory requirements. Seafarer welfare is one of the six core areas of the SSI’s Vision, which is to create a truly sustainable shipping industry by 2040.

To understand the challenges facing seafarers in today’s industry, the SSI initiated a survey to explore their quality of life and discern what more can be done to enhance the living conditions on board vessels.

The survey highlighted that seafarers often experience stress while at sea, both in their day-to-day work as well as the emotional challenges of being away from their families for long periods of time. Seafarers, like anyone else, require suitable living spaces for relaxation and rest, with means of appropriate social distraction and access to positive and empathetic support while on board. The need for a proper work schedule and adequate shore leave when in port were also highlighted in the findings.

To that end, we have been developing a ‘Seafarers on-board Charter’; a best practice charter that can be adopted by ship owners, operators and managers and others in the industry. For those that adopt it, it demonstrates that they recognise the value of the seafarer to the enterprise, and in addition to the mandatory requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention, are also implementing some of the voluntary aspects within the Part B provisions of the MLC.

It is this principle of going ‘beyond the basics’ that is the fundamental premise of the charter, which is then split into five subcategories. These are:

1. Accommodation: signatories to the charter would strive to enhance habitability through indoor Environmental Quality Factors, such as light, heat, moisture, noise, vibration, air quality and colours to promote rest and relaxation.

2. Recreational and social activities: including providing and equipping recreational spaces that encourage social activities on board vessels; providing a welfare fund to each vessel to be spent as decided by the seafarers; encouraging a cohesive onboard community through regular social activities; ensuring that port agents provide information on available shore facilities when requested by the Master; and encouraging shore leave wherever practical and possible in port and at anchor.

3. Communication and support: providing internet connectivity to seafarers; conducting seafarer satisfaction surveys to monitor developments, capturing concerns, as well as progress, and responding to feedback with actions as appropriate; they should also consider the opportunity of engaging and aligning themselves with a charity such as the Sailors’ Society that promotes seafarer well-being.

4. Food and catering: Ensuring that potable water is of suitable quality, is fit to drink and is tested regularly.

5. Management and policy: Signatories must ensure that there are equal opportunities for seafarers and shore staff; encourage a harmonious workplace on board vessels led by senior officers; encourage and value the retention of seafarers; and review manning procedures to encourage industry best practice as far as is practical.

We strongly believe that those who adopt the standard will have a more productive business, more efficient operations, and will generate more commercial benefits and profitability. There is a connection between crew experience, crew satisfaction and efficient operations – forward-thinking companies have seen this and already put a great deal of effort into developing and retaining crews. They will be seen as the best employers, and will have the best people working for them. This is a hallmark of sustainability.

Basic regulations have been put in place that act as a foundation. However, to create a continuous and natural culture of welfare that is truly sustainable, the industry as a whole needs to go further. Ultimately this will serve to build a profile and reputation for shipping as an industry of opportunity that people aspire to be a part of and thrive within.



  1. Interesting article but there are 2 points you fail to cover:
    1) People generally go to sea as a career because they want to. A few may see it as a stepping stone to technical management or pilotage in later years but overall, we enjoy being in the marine environment.
    2) Don’t try to make an offshore / marine job into another safe secure office job! People who want that environment should stay ashore. That is not to denigrate safety in any way at all but stop trying to wrap people up in cotton wool

    1. OH! really I was really under the impression that commercial shipping depended heavily on 3rd world countries with low employment and lax labour laws .Where the seafarers themselves are unheard in the policy making circles.Please be sober before commenting. Very few from these countries go to sea because they love the sea.

  2. Less said about safety at sea , the better. Marine industry is a service industry. If the core industries in the world are facing recession the worse is the marine industry which has made a full , formal industry of safety generating papers for the insurance industry.People have been trained to the last of the tether .Eating up their precious leave times mandatory as well as value added courses (all with good intentions), but what they get on board is quite a different story. Safety is the first thing that goes out of the porthole ( excuse only weathertight ones exist these days) when push comes to shove.I have seen people entering cargo tanks at night to repair a chinese valve where no compulsion of charterers exist .

  3. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for your comment. The article was not intending to address the reasons for going to, or staying at sea, as these vary from person to person. We want people to want to go to sea and have a rewarding career, whether they stay at sea or come ashore at some point – this is in our vision.

    We’re not trying wrap people up in cotton wool either, but the industry has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of those who work in it, and it should be a safe place to work and live. While many companies are already doing this, there are many more who are not, leaving room for improvement in the industry as a whole.

    If shipping is to attract and retain the talented people it needs now and in the future ­to ensure the sector’s long-term sustainability­ our experience tells us that good welfare provision is a vital part of the offering.

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