Seafarers are often referred to as the world’s invisible workforce. And as representatives from seafaring organisations are again noticeably absent among the keynote speakers at the 2019 Cyprus Maritime conference, this label continues to ring true.
Undoubtedly the power that drives the global shipping industry, seafarers are often ignored, exploited and marginalised. They are overwhelmingly male – only 3% are women, statistics from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) show – and most of the worlds nearly two million seafarers come from just five countries: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia and the Ukraine. Seafaring is a high-risk profession where accidents are common and deaths are not unusual and seafarers, cut off from their families and living in the isolated community of a ship, are at greater risk of suffering from mental illnesses. Leading maritime charity The Sailor’s Society asserts that over 25% of seafarers suffer from depression and nearly 6% of deaths at sea are attributable to suicide. By comparison, around 1.5% of deaths globally were recorded as suicide by the WHO in 2017.
If Marx was right and all profit is the surplus value of labour then nowhere is this more apparent than in the hyper-globalised shipping industry. Along with the serious health and safety hazards they face, seafarers also contend with unstable working conditions and short-term, irregular contracts with little or no job security or benefits. Seafarers also face the constant threat of being replaced by cheaper crews from other countries as ship managers trawl the world looking for low-cost educated seafarers, and regularly ‘switch crews’ when they find them. Over time Polish crew may be replaced by Russians, Russians by Filipinos, Filipinos by Chinese, and so on.
The spectre of automation also looms large. Trials of automated fleets are already well underway, and as new technology is introduced on board more ranks become redundant. Not long ago ships required a Radio Officer; today satellite technology has rendered the position obsolete. The trend is intensifying: a two-year study by the World Maritime University and funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) concluded that new technology will cut global demand for seafarers by 22% in the next two decades.
Tellingly, main shipping trade associations like the ICS and the International Maritime Employers Council (IMEC) often cite a severe shortage of seafarers and warn that demand will soon outstrip supply. Nonetheless, it is widely known that the current shipping crisis has left many seafarers unemployed. Crewell, the biggest online seafarer job portal shows 140,000 available personnel against a vacancy rate of less than 2,000 jobs. And the supply keeps on growing, as every state on the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) ‘white list’ is keen to develop their seafarer labour pools to cut unemployment and earn valuable foreign reserves from home remittances. For example, the Maritime Industry Authority of the Philippines estimates seafarer remittances at $6 billion for 2018, a figure the country aims to increase by attracting more Filipinos to the profession.
All this does not bode well for the embattled seafarer, who makes a significant investment in their education and is locked into a lifelong pattern of expensive training courses. An added burden is that insurers have started forcing seafarers through increasingly tougher health checks to mitigate the risk of any expensive illness on board.
Attitudes ashore towards seafarers can also be patronising and lack empathy, reinforcing their feelings of ‘otherness’. The mood during a recent WISTA crew management round table debate in Limassol was depressingly familiar, with the main panel discussions titled ‘Connectivity – Road to Disaster or Moving with the Times? – The Pros and Cons of Internet on Ships’ and ‘Lifestyle at Sea – New Initiatives Related to Welfare and Social Well Being’. Here, local shipping experts debated the implications of granting internet access to seafarers – as if it were not a given for the rest of the world – and hashed over initiatives to provide decent food, recreational facilities and psychological support. These perceptions are often reinforced by initiatives like the IMO’s ‘Day of the Seafarer’, a yearly event that asks the shipping industry to collectively pause for one day to remember the many workers at sea. On this day shore personnel wear blue to demonstrate solidarity with their seagoing colleagues, and pictures are taken and sent on board with messages of support. While well-meaning, these initiatives can seem gimmicky and insincere when not bound within an ongoing holistic approach to seafarer support and well-being.
Another serious threat that seafarers face is that of criminalisation, particularly in states lacking developed or transparent judicial systems. The arrest and detention of the crew of the UBC Savannah, a Cyprus flagged and managed vessel in Mexico last July for reporting an attempt to smuggle drugs aboard their ship is a stark reminder that seafarers can be punished simply for reporting a crime. The UBC Savannah crew, having spotted suspicious packages buried under tons of iron ore during discharging, quickly locked down the ship and immediatly notified the authorities as is standard practice under the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS). Their integrity and professionalism did not count for much as all were promptly arrested by the Mexican coast guard and are currently jailed without charge or information regarding their trial.
Cases like the UBC Savannah are common, and the criminalisation of seafarers is a global issue that unions like the ITF have long fought against. A survey by Nautilus International in 2018 found that criminalisation is a major fear among seafarers, with over 90% of participants worried about the risk of prosecution. These fears are well-founded as time and again seafarers are proven easy targets for courts looking to apportion blame and quell public outcries after serious maritime incidents.
One example of such scapegoating was the capsizing of the Sewol super ferry in South Korea in April 2014 where prosecutors handed out a 36-year sentence to the captain and jail terms of up to 30 years for other crew members despite the judge admitting that the owner was responsible for overloading the ship and approving structural changes that made it unseaworthy. In stark contrast, the owner was sentenced to 10 years and other company officials received jail terms of between 3 and 6 years.
In a similar case, Captain Apostolos Mangouras of the Prestige oil tanker was sentenced to two years after a 14-year legal battle that succeeded in criminalising an 81-year-old man who many believe saved the lives of his crew and avoided greater environmental catastrophe when the ship broke up and sank in heavy storms off the Spanish coast. “The Mangouras case was one of the worst examples of the kneejerk criminalisation of seafarers… this latest piece of victimisation reminds us that we must all remain vigilant to protect seafarers from these injustices,” David Heindel of the ITF said shortly after the sentence was announced.
Yet for all the hardships of a career at sea, the rewards can be great. Seafarer salaries are comparatively high and even the lowest ranking can quickly break the poverty cycle. The financially astute invest their money well and retire early; others create expensive lifestyles ashore that can only be sustained by more work at sea. Seafarers may also benefit from an elevated social status at home and are often treated like local heroes for their contribution to the economy.
Overall, conditions on ships are also steadily improving, mainly due to the introduction of the IMO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) that has set minimum standards for working and living conditions on board that cover everything from resting hours to food and recreation. Now in its sixth year, rigid enforcement of MLC requirements by flag states has resulted in improved standards and forced many shoddy operators to either up their game or leave the market altogether.
Meanwhile, hopes are high that the UBC Savannah case will be swiftly resolved and the detained seafarers released. Intership Navigation, the vessel’s manager, is widely regarded as a top tier employer and they, like other leading ship managers, have long understood that the basics matter: decent conditions on board, fair contract lengths and salaries and regular concern and care from experienced crewing professionals ashore. Moreover, loyalty to their seafarers and a reluctance to switch to cheaper crews secures the essential skills and experience required to remain competitive and decreases the probability of costly errors and accidents on board. This creates a positive feedback loop whereby vessels run smoothly and profitably, bolstering a firm’s reputation for safety and reliability and attracting more clients. In a nutshell, if ship managers make it their business to care about their seafarers, then their seafarers will care about the business.
As Maritime Cyprus 2019 opens and the high-calibre delegates begin to arrive, we can be optimistic that the next conference in 2021 will see the global seafaring community better represented, with valuable discussions on improving crew safety, satisfaction and productivity and reducing risks like criminalisation and mental illness. Perhaps 2021 will also be the year we finally recognise the shipping industry’s most valuable asset: its seafarers.
John Ioannou has worked in crew management and human resources for over 20 years