Declining wages and longer spells at sea are threatening to plunge the shipping industry into a recruitment crisis unless fundamental changes are made to working conditions, a new report has found.
The survey by the Mission to Seafarers charity asked 10 key questions about day-to-day life and working conditions to gauge the mood of crews around the world.
Overall satisfaction had fallen from 7.7 out of 10 at the end of 2022, to an average of 6.7 today, with each question showing a decrease in contentment.
In the UAE, harsher penalties have been introduced for the abandonment of vessels by shipping companies, a tool used by some to exploit gaps in workers' rights at sea. The move has led to fewer cases of seafarers appealing for help.
Globally, the latest Seafarers Happiness Index found a significant drop in scores related to welfare post-Covid-19.
The pandemic exposed major fault lines in shipping when port restrictions meant many crew were left stranded or awaiting repatriation for months.
Since then, changes have been made but charities said crew continued to report a decline in working conditions.
“It is not surprising to find this report shows seafarers are still having contractual issues, especially with shore leave, [and not enough] food and water on board,” said Chirag Bahri, international operations manager at the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network.
“These are common issues that are also reported via our helpline.
The survey found the most significant rating drops were in the general happiness of crews, shore leave and the workload, showing a decrease of around 8 per cent.
“Generally, after Covid there has been a reaction and crew are more reluctant to go back to sea,” said Mr Bahri.
“There are questions about what the future looks like with greener shipping, and how do we fill the requirement for the number of officers required in the market when there is not much interest to join the industry.
“There is a mix of shipping companies across the globe and we are working daily with the large groups that do take good care of seafarers and their welfare, but there are also substandard companies.
“These companies have little interest in welfare issues and that is also highlighted in the survey.
“Crew working on abandoned ships or who have had issues with their day-to-day work or sign-off often come to us with these problems.”
The global sea freight forwarding market size reached $78.6 billion (Dh288bn) in 2022, with China, Greece, Japan, the US and Germany the largest shipowners.
Due to its strategic location, the UAE has become a central global shipping hub, with some of the busiest ports in the world handling millions of containers every year.
The Mission to Seafarers report claimed multiple people had come forward about conditions relating to food and water on board ships.
“There were troubling messages concerning ships running out of stores, and also staggering reports about having little or no access to potable water, or even being charged a monthly fee for drinking water,” it said.
Welfare groups said messages from seafarers painted a worrying snapshot of the conditions they are experiencing.
“There needs to be more analysis of what is causing this low morale. Is it abandoned seafarers registering complaints about not enough food and water, or is it a more general issue within the industry?” asked Mr Bahri.
“Some crew are unaware their ship has been abandoned.
“According to the International Maritime Labour Convention, if the crew have not been paid for two months or had adequate regular food and water in that time, then the vessel is abandoned.
“It highlights the need for more awareness training for workers looking to go to sea, and what kind of challenges they may face.”
Often, if shipping companies run into financial difficulties crew are the first to experience hardship, especially if a vessel is at sea anchorage.
After a spate of pre-Covid abandonments in UAE waters, laws were introduced in 2021 to penalise vessel owners with a Dh20,000 fine and a further Dh10,000 for each seafarer on board.
Repeat offenders can have fines doubled and company licences cancelled.
The framework appears to be acting as a deterrent with no current cases of abandonment reported to the Dubai office of the Mission to Seafarers in UAE waters.
Calls for more accountability for crew welfare by the shipping industry have been made, with concerns the survey results only offer a brief snapshot of a wider malaise.
In New Zealand, shipping levies are paid to the state to sustainably fund onshore, multi-faith seafarer welfare facilities.
It is a model that could be replicated across the world, according to David Hammond, chief executive of the UK group Human Rights at Sea.
“The Seafarer's Happiness Index is one important measure of seafarer concerns within the global shipping industry,” he said.
“But it also underlies the continuing need for much greater state accountability for commercial shipping activities under state control, within territorial waters regulated through port state controls.
“Abuses at sea will continue until strict accountability and an improved deterrence against poor business activities is truly addressed.”