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Shipping needs to face social inequality challenge

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One session at London International Shipping Week’s main conference at IMO Headquarters assessed the industry's social impact, the areas in which external pressure may be applied in the future, and how businesses can prepare for that pressure.

The World Economic Forum was right to place COVID’s damage to progress on poverty and inequality at the top of its risk register, said Peter Holbrook CBE, Chief Executive, Social Enterprise UK. Beyond its social impacts, inequality is a threat to business.

“We know that the growing wealth inequality drives a whole range of precarious outcomes. It can increase issues of populism and mistrust in international institutions, it can undermine the very principle of meritocracy, the idea that we’re born into a world where if we work hard, we can achieve wonderful things.”

The panel noted the shipping industry’s role in enabling globalisation, in turn enabling development across the world. However, economic growth on its own is not enough, said Holbrook.

“Wealth creation has been such an incredible driver of tackling poverty around the world. You can’t say that ongoing economic development, growth by itself, is going to continue to drive up quality of life of people around the world. In 2017/18, 87% of all the new wealth generated in a globalised world… went to less than the top 1%,” he said.

Cecilia Harvey Global ED&I Lead Royal HaskoningDHV said that companies usually drive their diversity efforts towards protected characteristics, but social and economic access and backgrounds need to be addressed.

Harvey gave UK KPMG as an example of positive progress; the firm recently announced it was targeting 29% of its partners and directors coming from working class backgrounds by 2030, up from its current 23% of partners and 20% of directors.

“Social mobility is about a lack of accessibility into some of the things that we don’t even think of. They don’t occur to us because we’ve never been in that position to not have access to information, or medical healthcare and so on,” said Harvey.

Stephen Cotton General Secretary, International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) said: “We are challenging our comprehension of what is the right way and what is best practise, because those challenges are very different depending where you sit in economic opportunity.”

The panel said the social impact of shipping was part of a wider debate on building a better society, and that there were actions companies could take to improve their impact on the communities they serve and rely on.

“Some of the things we could do as businesses is help people enter the sector. Apprenticeship schemes, not always assume that having a degree from a redbrick university with a 2.1 is what opens doors. Be bold, be courageous and brave to invite talent,” said Harvey, adding that it was important companies approach these issues with long-term plans and open minds.

ICS Secretary-General Guy Platten said that the industry is well placed to deal with these issues, and that the industry should be proud of the way it has lifted many people out of poverty through investment in seafarer supplying nations. “I think we can do far more, but I think the quality issue is a real opportunity for our industry and we should grasp it with both hands.”

Holbrook said companies needed to look at their impact. “Where does the benefit from your industry land? Who is benefiting from the increasing growth we see? Start thinking about your impact on equality, not just around the decisions you make on your workforce, but think about your role in the supply chain… and start thinking about where the value in your business is contributing not just to your shareholders’ and investors’ needs, but to the needs of humanity. That’s the future currency, if it’s not, we’re all stuffed.”

Yee Yang Chien, President & Group CEO, MISC Group said that the antidote for inequality is opportunity for everyone, and shipping’s global role meant it could create opportunity, for example of the area of seafarer recruitment. “The key here is co-operation between shipowners, managers, regulators, maritime academies to develop new sources of seafarers from poorer countries to bring opportunities to those countries.”

Adding another warning to a week of conferences that cautioned the industry on inaction leading to changes imposed by external forces, Holbrook said: “When inequality gets out of control we tend to reach a tipping point. Those inequalities are addressed, at times through revolution, at times through war, at times through other historical anomalies that address inequality on an involuntary basis.”