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International Labour Day: Remember the challenges faced by seafarers

Photo: Stella Maris Fr Alex with seafarers visiting Odesa Ukraine[51].jpg
Fr Alex from Stella Maris with seafarers visiting Odesa Ukraine
As many countries enjoy the May Day holiday spare a thought for seafarers working far away from home and running the gauntlet of geopolitical conflicts.

In some good news the Seafarers’ Happiness Index from the Mission to Seafarers turned around from a consistent decline in 2023 with a first quarter of 2024 rise to 6.94 out of 10 compared to 6.36 in Q4 2023.

The increase in the index, which is delivered association with Idwal and NorthStandard, and supported by Inmarsat, was driven by a positive trend across all 10 markers that it covers.

Improvements included enhanced financial security through fair wages and timely payments, fostering job satisfaction and camaraderie through positive crew relationships, as well as improved connectivity facilitating better communication with loved ones.

Yves Vandenborn, Head of Loss Prevention Asia-Pacific at NorthStandard, commented: "As an organisation advocating for seafarer wellbeing, NorthStandard finds it heartening that the Index captures rising seafarer happiness levels in the first quarter of 2024, especially given the decline reported in 2023. We are also encouraged that the overall increase from 6.36 /10 to 6.94 is driven by gains across all 10 markers used, instead of a selective few.”

But it is not all good news, and many areas of seafarers lives still require systemic reforms to improve wellbeing.

In particular the Q1 report highlighted persistent allegations of fraudulent working hours and inadequate rest periods as a result. It was noted that the manual nature of the process combined with a lack of context is perceived as inherently vulnerable to fraudulent activities and raises doubts about data quality.

There are also other work-life balance challenges such as extended contracts and lack of shore leave, as well as substandard living conditions and connectivity, although improvement is being seen in these areas.

Thom Herbert, Senior Marine Surveyor and Crew Welfare Advocate at Idwal, “We are encouraged by the positive trends, particularly around financial security, crew relationships, and enhanced training opportunities. However, we must remain vigilant in addressing persistent challenges like work-life balance, substandard accommodations, and any discriminatory practices that undermine seafarer dignity and morale. Idwal remains committed to championing transparency, accountability, and a culture of care that empowers seafarers to thrive both professionally and personally."

Meanwhile another maritime charity Stella Maris highlighted the risks faced by seafarers serving trades to and from Ukraine on vessels that navigate two major conflict zones in the Red and Black Seas. These seafarers face threats from both the Houthi in the Red Sea and Russian military in the Black Sea and Ukrainian ports.

In the last week the Houthis in Yemen have restarted attacking commercial ships with drones and missiles in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, while Russian military are reported to regularly attack any Ukraine bound ship since the collapse of the grain corridor. Even once in the Port of Odesa devastating drone and missile attacks occur regularly.

Stella Maris Odesa port chaplain Father Alexander Smerechynskyy, known as ‘Fr Alex’, and Rostyslav ‘Rostik’ Inzhestoikov, director of its local centre, make regular visits to ships that arrive in the port as many shipowners do not allow seafarers to leave the vessel due to security concerns.

The seafarers they meet are from a wide range of countries from Syria and Turkey to, Egypt and Indonesia.

Fr Alex explained: Some of the seafarers have travelled through the conflict area of the Red Sea, with its risks of attacks from Houthis, then have travelled onto the Black Sea with its own dangers, given there is no agreement on maritime safety.

“They have signed on knowing the risks and receive additional pay as a result, but there is no respite for them and that has an effect. Once here in Odesa they can witness the drone attacks on the port and the town at close hand.”

Meanwhile Rostik recounted talking to one seafarer shortly after they had witnessed one of those attacks close to where their ship was docked. “When you look up and see a drone just a few hundreds of metres from a ship, or see an explosion close by, it is little wonder it adds to the stress and anxiety you are feeling,” he said.

On the broader picture of the outlook for crew welfare the Mission to Seafarers is hopefully of a better year ahead in terms of welfare and happiness of those working at sea.

Andrew Wright, Secretary-General, The Mission to Seafarers, said: "We are cautiously optimistic that this points towards a better year ahead for seafarers, but sustained improvement will require meaningful action. Between us, we have the tools at our disposal to make a difference to the lives of those working at sea, and it is up to us to act.”