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Sexual assault is ‘the elephant in the room’ for shipping

Photo: Alexander Kliem - Pixabay Containership at sea
Addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) in the maritime industry is essential for seafarer welfare and attracting new talent, on a national and international level.

Speaking to Seatrade Maritime News ahead of his appearance at CMA Shipping in Connecticut March 21-23, Mark Nestlehutt - President & Executive Director at the Seamen’s Church Institute said SASH in maritime had been a recent focus for the institute, and for regulators both national and international.

Nestlehutt said the issue came into focus two years or so ago when cadets and midshipmen came forward to report cases of sexual assault and rape aboard vessels. The issue was picked up by the institute and the US Maritime Administration was prompted to try and figure out how to address the problem, with initiatives trickling down to state maritime colleges.

“But it's not just an issue in the US. If you go to an IMO meeting or an ILO meeting, one of the concerns is sexual assaults, sexual harassment, answering questions like what kind of training needs there are, what sort of teeth there needs to be in any sort of enforcement, and how they would go about doing that,” said Nestlehutt.

The Seamen’s Church Institute played a role promoting the issue of shore leave provision for mariners in 2014. Nestlehutt hopes the institute can play a similar guiding role in tackling SASH issues, supporting work at the IMO, ILO and the US Coast Guard.

Ultimately, Nestlehutt said the issue is to the detriment of the entire industry as it tackles the challenges of attracting and retaining talent.

“If you're really talking about crew recruitment and retention, do you really want to have an industry that basically excludes 50% of the workforce, because it's considered an unsafe environment or a hostile environment for them to work in?” Nestlehutt said.

Mark Nestlehutt will take part in the session “Shipmanagement Roundtable: Crew Supply and recruiting the next-generation seafarers” at CMA Shipping 2023. Check out the full CMA Shipping 2023 programme on the event website.

Making the maritime industry welcome to everyone is an important objective, said Nestlehutt, as the sector faces recruitment challenges and the world of work at sea and ashore evolves. Seafarers spend less and less time ashore as they travel the world, limiting the distances they can travel from port if their watch schedule even allows them time ashore at all.

As life at sea becomes more restricted, roles ashore have become increasingly flexible as the practice of working from home is adopted and employees have more opportunities to strike the work-life balance they desire.

While different working conditions and lifestyles will suit different individuals, steps can be taken to soften the impact of long periods away from home, said Nestlehutt.

“At the Seamen’s Church, one of the things we really advocated for along with other organisations is universal internet access for all mariners. I think some shipping executives or government agencies might hear that and think seafarers want to be able to stream Netflix while they're on vessels. Quite frankly, what universal internet access provides is the ability to be in contact with your family. It provides the ability to activate and utilise a lot of these new shore to ship services around mental health and counselling,” said Nestlehutt.

The progression of time is making these issues even more important, especially in the US market where the baby boom generation are reaching retirement and the smaller generation X struggles to fill the available roles, he added.

The Seamen’s Church Institute has been working with the CMA Shipping event since its inception, with ceremonial duties such as the opening blessings and prayers, and practical contributions to the show’s conference agenda over the past two decades.

The institute works on seafarer rights issues through its Centre for Mariner Advocacy, working on issues such as seafarer abandonment and piracy at national and international levels. In addition to ship visits, welfare work and its advocacy centre, The Seamen’s Church Institute also has an education and training side with ongoing maritime education, and facilities and simulators from Wartsila and Kongsberg.

“We have three big divisions that are all somehow related in the sense that in the 1830s, when we started doing this, our whole goal was to advance the lives and livelihoods of seafarers. One way to do that was through education, the other was to do it through immediate one on one transactions, the other was to do it through advocating for seafarers on Capitol Hill in the States, or now with international organizations,” said Nestlehutt.

Looking ahead to CMA Shipping 2023, Nestlehutt teased: “I've got a quote that I'll use when I'm on the panel that I don't want to leak out too early. Let’s just say we learned a lot from COVID about mental health and a great deal more.”