Time for a professional approach to maritime welfare training

Katie Higginbottom, head of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, writes exclusively for Splash today.

Seafarers are the backbone of the shipping industry. Without their professionalism and commitment the whole fabric of global trade as we know it would fall apart. That is one reason why the wellbeing of maritime workers is important. Another reason is the unique nature of their workplace. Not only are they largely invisible to the people whose needs they serve, they exist in a complex legal environment where multiple jurisdictions of flags, ports, and their home countries sometimes fail to provide the protections enjoyed by citizens working ashore.

In August this year, it will be five years since the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) entered into force. As a mechanism to ensure that minimum standards are met, the MLC has proved to be an invaluable tool to counter the worst conditions that sadly still exist. But regulations rely on effective enforcement and a culture of compliance. Full marks to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) for recently banning one such substandard vessel from its waters for a full 12 months. It is to be sincerely hoped that others follow this example. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also deserves a mention for upping its efforts to dispatch shameful operators from its waters.

One only has to look at the IMO/ILO database on abandoned seafarers to see that the maritime industry has some way to go to reach the nirvana of a ‘level playing field for shipowners’ that doesn’t permit undercutting through the worst sort of cost-cutting.

Then there are the strict security controls in ports, endless inspections and minimal opportunities for shore leave, not to mention the inhumane environments of out of town mechanised port complexes. No wonder then that there is more awareness of the stresses and strains placed on seafarers and concerns for their mental as well as physical wellbeing.

Seafarers are of course heavily reliant on a vast network of shore-based counterparts when it comes to many aspects of their working lives. From shipowners to shipmanagers, flag state inspectors to port authorities and ship agents, their decisions have a major impact on the conditions and wellbeing of seafarers, for better or worse. They are also supported by the extensive community of people providing maritime welfare services. Many of these individuals share a genuine commitment to the cause of maritime welfare. Indeed, for some, it is a vocation to which they have dedicated their careers and lives.

Maritime welfare touches on and is impacted by a wide range of issues, from the legal framework to an understanding of occupational health issues, including the physical, psychological, and social aspects of working at sea. Equally, the discipline of crew management today brings in a range of important considerations, including the evolving threats to safety and security, both in port and at sea.

Goodwill is essential but to be effective in any role that involves engaging with seafarers, or taking decisions that affect their lives, requires expertise. The need for a professional skillset deserves to be taken seriously. Indeed, we believe that employers with seafarer-facing personnel have a responsibility to equip their people with the knowledge and skills to do their jobs properly, which means understanding the welfare implications of the decisions that they take.

Although training has been available in different aspects of maritime welfare, there has not yet been a training programme that addresses all aspects, giving participants a full 360-degree perspective on maritime welfare. This is about to change with the launch of MARI-WEL – the Professional Development Programme in Maritime Welfare.

MARI-WEL is a new training programme specifically designed to provide the skills and knowledge needed to support seafarer welfare. Created through collaboration between the ITF Seafarers’ Trust and the World Maritime University (WMU), it is the first programme of its kind to deliver a comprehensive and innovative distance-learning course of topics that relate to maritime welfare. From the latest developments in IMO codes and conventions to the role and ethics of social intervention, this course covers all the bases.

MARI-WEL is delivered via an online portal through a series of activities and video lectures given by top experts in their field and is accredited by the WMU. It allows participants to undertake the programme from anywhere in the world, with the flexibility to follow the course at their own speed and as time allows.

In terms of a professional approach to maritime welfare training, we believe MARI-WEL is set to become the gold standard.

The MARI-WEL programme will open its virtual doors to students on 1 August and we hope to see widespread take-up of the course. To register your interest now, click here.


    1. Still shocking to see abandonment cases in the UK where you would think the protections would work better. This long running case was not helped by the initial attitude of the port who added their own penalties delaying a resolution for the crew. The ITF and Navigators P&I have helped previous crew to get home but the remaining seafarers have declined ITF support and I believe they are pursuing their case through a lawyer.

      1. I have no personal knowledge of the case and can only go on what I have been hearing. I agree that this seems to be a shocking case.

        As a non-expert, I wonder if the port’s reputed action in refusing to supply a gangway or other means of escape from the vessel may be a breach of the crew’s human rights?

  1. George Malec, the recently-retired Harbour Master at Port of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, Canada, came up with a brilliant idea, which deserves to be copied. When a vessel goes bankrupt in Halifax, the Port of Halifax boards the vessel, and ascertains the amount of wages due to each crew member. Port of Halifax then writes each crew member a cheque for the full amount, in the presence of the ITF Inspector, who sets up a bank account for the wages IN CANADA, thereby placing the money out of the reach of potential “threats to reclaim” in the seafarers’ country of origin. Port of Halifax then arranges the repatriation of the crew and pays the costs to repatriate the crew. Port of Halifax now has a claim for crew wages, repatriation costs, and the provision of security services, against the asset (the ship). This way, Port of Halifax does not have to deal with lawyers in multiple jurisdictions across the planet, it only has to deal with its own lawyer, which makes things much simpler. A further advantage is that the crew of the bankrupt vessel, who are probably disaffected, and who may sabotage the vessel, are promptly removed from the situation. When the vessel is sold at Sheriff’s Auction, Port of Halifax reclaims its outgoings in the Canadian courts.

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