For an industry as critical to the global economy as international shipping, there is surprisingly little known about some of its inner workings – particularly those pertaining to the conditions experienced by seafarers, many of whom spend long months working far from home and often in something of a regulatory grey area.
Apart from industry insiders, many people – isolated from shipping’s day-to-day operations – assume that it functions smoothly in a properly regulated framework. However, a new report from the Mission to Seafarers charity highlighted by The National this week shows that when it comes to the issue of working conditions, things are far from rosy, something that is leading to concerns about recruitment and retention of staff.
To gauge the mood of crews around the world, a global survey asked 10 questions about daily life and working conditions. It found a fall in scores related to welfare after the abatement of Covid-19. The survey also found that the most significant rating drops concerned shore leave, workloads and crews’ general happiness.
Given that, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, the world’s 50,000 merchant ships are manned by nearly two million seafarers, such concerns about pay, work and conditions are significant and need to be taken seriously. Aside from the sheer numbers of workers concerned, global shipping is an enormous, interconnected and valuable industry. Worth an estimated $14 trillion in 2019, the industry transports nearly 2 billion tonnes of crude oil, 350 million tonnes of grain and a billion tonnes of iron ore each year, delivery volumes that cannot be matched effectively by road, rail or air. Overall, shipping facilitates more than 80 per cent of global trade.
But shipping has weaknesses that were exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic when port restrictions led to dozens of crews being left stranded for months. Abandoning vessels was a tactic used by some unscrupulous maritime companies to avoid having to take care of their crews. In the UAE, a government resolution passed in September 2021 means operators of merchant tankers and other commercial vessels face greater financial penalties for breaching the seafarers’ rights. A framework outlined by the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure includes fines for owners of abandoned vessels, with an additional penalty for each seafarer left on board.
Such moves are examples of the sorts of measures that can be taken to improve conditions and hold those responsible to account. Chirag Bahri, international operations manager at the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, warned that despite some changes in the industry globally, many seafarers were still having contractual issues “especially with shore leave, [and not enough] food and water on board”.
If such deficiencies are not addressed, it will become harder for the industry to find new seafarers and keep the ones it already has. International Chamber of Shipping reports already say there is an “overall shortage in the supply of officers” – a worrying conclusion given that the UN Conference on Trade and Development last year claimed that between 2023 and 2017 global maritime trade would grow at an annual average of 2.1 per cent. These thousands of ships need to be crewed by workers who are treated decently and in accordance with their rights.
Shipping already faces several challenges, such as increasing environmental regulation, digital innovations that are threatening traditional business models, and competition from air and freight. Adding a recruitment crisis due to sub-standard working conditions to that list is far from desirable. Far-sighted companies will invest in training and welfare, and offer appropriate packages to retain staff. Those who fixate on the bottom line will lose out.