The dire triangle and crew welfare

Steven Jones, founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, identifies the three elements which shape life for crew that suffer.

One of the first things any seafarer learns, well aside from how to soap their nethers properly, is about the fire triangle. That beautifully simple yet evocative explanation of the relationship between heat, fuel and oxygen.

It always stuck with me, and I never had a fire I didn’t want – so perhaps it did some good? It has actually always proven quite a valuable tool for understanding all kinds of potentially complex issues. Assessing what are the component parts of a problem, and what would happen if you could separate that relationship?

Breaking the triangle is useful in more than just combustion, and I recently thought about how we can finally start to solve the fundamental problems facing seafarers. How could we as an industry break apart the issues facing those who are poorly treated, overlooked, ignored and scared to speak up?

It is increasingly obvious that seafarers fall into three basic camps – there are those who actually have a great life at sea. They work for good companies, they have careers mapped out, mentors, support, good wages and conditions which make them feel good about themselves, what they do and how they do it. They can call home, message freely, and feel connected. They aren’t the problem, but they should certainly be an aspiration.

Together we can take the negative drivers and dismantle them

Below that halcyon, lovely level – that’s where things get trickier. At the bottom levels of the industry, in the dark corners, that’s where we find the “seafarers” who are really in danger. I put their title in inverted commas, as some aren’t actually crew – they are just those who have perhaps been duped into going to sea, even paying for the privilege. They are the lost souls that we need to save.

Above them, is an odd part of the industry. These are the owners that on a good day can be pleasant enough, they may even seem to care. They are the bipolar employers – who would be happy on one freight rate to buy some gym equipment or a new TV, but then on other days work their people too hard, and who pay only cursory lip service to standards. This is the biggest part of the industry, sadly.

So, back to triangles. In working with some wonderful organisations of late, I was party to the development of the new Seafarers Rights Code of Conduct. Backed by some big industry heavy hitters and the companies that use ships to move their sneakers, shampoos and the like, they have developed a really powerful piece of work which could make a real difference.

This work got me thinking about the fundamental building blocks that led to seafarers to either working for good, bad or very ugly employers. I came up with three primary drivers, yes…. a triangle. The dire triangle!

These are the three elements which shape life for the seafarers that suffer. These are the reasons they are duped or robbed, the reasons they accept things they shouldn’t have to, and the reasons their lives are in danger, their mental wellbeing is non-existent, and their life one of unrelenting misery.

These elements? Poverty, port working conditions and lack of agency. This is the dire triangle which is responsible for the misery, pain, suffering and fear that all too many seafarers experience.

These are the seafarers who exist in a constant flux between these issues. They are in poverty, often trapped by the debt servicing which they and their families are paying for the “privilege” of being at sea through dodgy agents and recruitment fees. They can never free themselves of the financial issues, and put themselves into poor conditions because they lack agency. They feel they don’t have a voice or power, and lack the mechanisms needed to free themselves from the poverty trap.

There is the reality of poor conditions onboard – unsafe ships, festering galleys, poisonous food. terrible bedding, broken bunks, unremitting demands and misery. All because they feel they have no choice but to sail as they are compelled by poverty.

Then is the lack of agency, the inability to be seen or heard, the lack of a mechanism to effect the changes needed. They feel they cannot raise standards, they cannot break the poverty trap, because they lack the voice.

These are the factors which combine, which compel and control the lives of those seafarers who are at risk, in danger and who we need to be able to do better for.

Thankfully there are positives, there are those welfare organisations and people who care. They work tirelessly and with passion, always seeking to do the right things. To open a seafarer’s centre here, to fund some outreach there. Lots of activities which can make a difference, but which could also fail unless we drive these real changes to break the dire triangle.

Until we free seafarers and their families from poverty, until we raise the standards on all ships, and until we truly have seafarers empowered to speak, to act and to grasp their own agency and control then the problems will persist.

One of the mechanisms I work on is the Seafarers Happiness Index, and the aim of that is to identify the poor conditions and give seafarers the platform to talk, to share and to demonstrate the impacts they face, through which we can bring about positive progress.

Thankfully this has been illustrated in the past two Seafarers Happiness Index reports. We have seen rises in sentiment in both Q2 and Q3 of 2022. Something which hints at the way things can be. In Q2 we heard that owners had been investing onboard and focused on making the experience onboard better, while in the most recent report it has been the impact of more shore leave, certainties around crew changes and access to welfare facilities which have made seafarers feel better.

Even rollercoasters have ups, so we will see what the future brings, but it has been a relief to see some positivity. None of us can break the dire triangle alone, but together we can make a difference, together we can take the negative drivers and dismantle them. We can make life for seafarers better by supporting them, by hearing them and by enforcing standards onboard.

So, let’s break the triangle to make seafarers’ lives better.


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