Maritime’s missing link

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.


  1. Bless you Sandra. If you are able to inculcate a minimum level of welfare-consciousness into the labour-averse international shipping industry I will eat my hat. The forces you wish to reform are the same as those encountered ashore, only without regulatory constraint nor political oversight.
    Despite the latest IMO Conventions seafarers still exist in a regulatory black hole, without benefit of law, and with few agencies like the ITF to act for them. If a ship’s Master wants to make crew welfare central to his managerial philosophy, he’d better keep it to himself, as l did. Shipowners don’t like “sea lawyers”. certainly not in their sole representative on board. Many owners are attracted to ship-owning precisely because it DOES offer them the freedom they no longer have ashore. Of course there are companies that DO treat their crews well, but they are in the minority and are usually well-established in the developed world.

    When the promotion is made from Chief Officer to Master there is usually a distancing from the crew and it’s welfare, and towards the company’s agenda. This explains why some Masters treat their crews abominably, despite having moved through the ranks themselves. The company rewards such loyalty with bonuses and similar awards. In this way the Master acts for the Shipowner, and his affinity with the rest of the crew is diminished.

    Unless l’m wrong this initiative can be summed up as being “a study of studies”. If this is true the shipowner has nothing to fear, and the seafarer can allow his hopes to subside. Budgets will be burned, a lot of activity will take place, but it will have nothing to do with seafarers welfare.

    It is a naked fact of capitalism that owners cannot exploit you and care about you at the same time.. But for labour laws ashore, which Conservative governments, who represent the owning classes, are constantly trying to dismantle, we would be back in the “Satanic Mills” of Victorian England.

    What we need is a better way of doing things, which involves the entire ship’s company having an input into non-emergency decisions, on the ship and ashore. And it must happen ashore first, and then be grafted to ship management and the shipboard organization. There is much to do….for starters get rid of the ridiculous F.o.C. situation. Bring in a UN flag so owners cannot go hide or switch flags in the Dutch Auction of the factors that make up the industry. This will get rid of the regulatory black hole seafarers find themselves in, and allow them to appeal for relief and justice in any port.

    As for crew-retention problems, the industry solves these by going to non-seafaring countries, where labour is cheap and plentiful, such as, currently, in Africa, and lures them to sea with false promises about life at sea. What the industry will do when the very cheapest countries have been mined to exhaustion, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps then this study of studies will find a home somewhere.

    My hat is seasoned and ready to be eaten.

  2. As usual Capt Colin Smith nails it to the masthead. Lots of talk about wellbeing. This week I talked a Filipino 3rd/Off from ending his career and worse yet his life threatening to jump into the Pacific two day out from the Westcoast of Canada. The problem? Four months of bullying humiliation and harassment from the European Captain. When I brought it to the headquarters of this major European owned containership company could hardly have cared less. Worse still the 3rd himself wrote to the MLC department following comapny procedure. Oh and this company also signed the Neptune Declaration which lost signatory’s alphabetically. You will find the name of this company after K and before P. Sadly I am becoming more disgusted by the industry by the month now.

  3. The prisoners have more rights and freedoms than seafarers at the current time.
    Shore people talking for nothing but actually all abt the Money. His money. Life at sea cost nonentity

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