Sandra Welch, CEO at Seafarers Hospital Society, suggests maritime’s turn towards sustainability must include seafarer welfare if it intends to address recruitment, retention, and the allocation of resources for development.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the curtain on the workings of the supply chain, and the maritime industry is more visible and public-facing than ever before. Current issues of the supply chain are dovetailing with longstanding issues of seafarer health and welfare, and affecting how the industry as a whole is perceived.
Public perception of ongoing challenges that are increasingly high profile – such as access to vaccinations, the crew change crisis, challenges with mental health, amenities onboard, etc – will undoubtedly impact recruitment and retention to the various fields in maritime. This perception comes at a time when the recently published 2021 BIMCO/ ICS Seafarer Workforce Report indicates that there is likely to be a serious shortage in trained and experienced seafarers.
While some issues appear to be situational and thus temporary, such as a lack of access to crew change and COVID-19 vaccinations, they indicate an ongoing issue of abdication of responsibility for crew wellbeing by the majority of operators. Although a few stakeholders genuinely care about seafarers and implement best practise to see to their mental, physical and emotional needs met, most crew members are well aware that their wellbeing is largely viewed as the remit of charities – with lip service paid to compliance with regulations such as the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006).
Prioritising resources for sustainability
Given our industry’s ambitions to rise to the challenges not only of the pandemic, but also climate change and decarbonization, a swift upscaling in digitisation, and more, it is time to address the elephant in the room. Seafarer welfare is a key element that can no longer be seen as negotiable when it comes to the industry’s changed needs. As we look to upskill or equip new and existing seafarers with abilities beyond their current roles, we need to create the conditions that we know foster success. I would argue that without prioritising a culture of care across the industry, we are not only hampering chances of individual seafarer success, but also the industry’s own ability to foster and retain talent.
We simply cannot pivot to new ways of working with emerging technologies and compliance with increasingly stringent regulations unless we address our current challenges with a holistic approach. This must account not only for issues of the moment, but keep an eye on the future that we are trying to achieve together. Sustainability, which is a prominent goal shared by various sectors in our industry, not only applies to the environment but also our workforce.
To have any chance of success to an improved future, we must move beyond the current model and prioritise much needed resources in more sustainable ways – and this includes human resources. Simply put, it is wasteful to devote our resources to creating study after study that offer routes to improved crew health and welfare without addressing the gap that sees these suggestions largely left by the wayside.
Balancing Welfare with Economies
While seafarer wellbeing is definitely a priority, going about creating systems to ensure this remains a complicated proposition for many. The pandemic has not only exacerbated pre-existing issues within the sector around seafarer health and wellbeing, but even companies willing to implement changes struggle to know where to begin and how to go about this.
I find that while there is a great deal of information available, a lot of it may not be well known or the suggested changes may range from potentially doable to requiring a great deal of funding and rehauling of operations. Depending upon an individual’s entry point, this can have a significant impact on whether they then decide to implement any of the suggested changes or not.
With well over two decades in experience in working with health and community development initiatives, this stumbling block is something I’m particularly familiar with. It’s one of the reasons that the Seafarers Hospital Society decided to fund a study with Yale University to assess existing studies on seafarer welfare initiatives and discuss these with industry participants to see what their feedback is regarding blocks to implementation.
The fact of the matter is that while we can discuss issues in the industry and suggest changes, the likelihood of these being implemented are very much based on changing realities ashore and at sea. Having the industry at the table allows us to work together to understand what constitute achievable goals when it comes to more low-hanging fruit, and then offer further options for when a company needs to scale up its initiatives.
A hierarchy of priorities
Once we understand what stakeholders in the industry are willing to take on board themselves we can prioritise our own work more effectively as well. We all have a role to play, and we need to have these conversations so that we’re not each assuming the other will address the issue. Otherwise, the system not only leaves seafarers out in the cold and organisations scrambling to assist, but also leaves us having to constantly reprioritise our own previous commitments as we shift resources. This is a priority for seafarer welfare organisations to address as well.
At our recent panel at London International Shipping Week, Guy Platten of the International Chamber of Shipping pointed out that while the pandemic has brought the industry together to tackle its various challenges, we must be careful not to return to the fragmented working of the past. I agree with this; there is a great deal of value in a united front that allows us to advocate for the industry with a stronger voice while balancing the needs of all stakeholders.
It is vital to remember that there are no single perfect long-term solutions to the current crisis of seafarer welfare, or any that may emerge in the future. However, working together as different stakeholders to prioritise and tackle some of the issues of the moment—while simultaneously creating channels of communication that remain open for future collaboration or change—allows us to build towards a better future for everyone in the industry.