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Happier times ahead for seafarers?

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Might the tide be turning for the lives lived by that essential but invisible workforce which crews the world shipping fleet?

It might be emerging from a rather low, pandemic-straitened, ebb, but there are some signs that life at sea might be improving. When the Seafarers’ Happiness Index first appeared, as a measure of contentment sponsored by the Mission to Seafarers and the Standard Club, there were some sceptics who might have questioned its veracity. But now, several years down the line, it seems to have become established as a reputable indicator of opinion afloat and a regular measure that can be accorded trust.  

What is more important, it is being noticed by more employers, who, you would think, ought to have a vested interest in sourcing well-motivated people to run their ships, especially when the post-pandemic recovery has emphasised the real risk of manpower shortages. There will be some relief that the miserable conclusions of the Index in the first quarter of last year, which marked a very low point, seems to have been followed by consistent improvement, and the report shows obvious gain in most fields, with more shore leave and fewer travel restrictions, clearly having an effect.  

There remains some work to be done in mitigating seafarer isolation with better connectivity, and there are still complaints of too few people aboard to do all the work, something which probably will not change any time soon.

Perhaps one encouraging effect of the Index could be that there are a growing number of agencies anxious to connect with seafarers, to canvas their opinion about specific issues, delve into their welfare and mental health and basically find out what makes the modern seafarer tick. Recently Intertanko commissioned a worldwide seafarer survey with a range of questions about life aboard ship, training, technology and the like, while the P&I club Gard has published some notably thoughtful notes about the continuing gaps in human rights at sea that need to be addressed.

This Gard paper goes further than the merchant mariner and considers other people like fishers – even refugees and asylum seekers - who fall into all sorts of fissures in established international maritime law  and are often ruthlessly exploited by the unprincipled. It is important that these problems, facilitated by  fragmented jurisdiction and a multiplicity of employment laws under some very odd flags these days, are addressed. The awful illustration of the ordeal being faced by the crew of the tanker Heroic Idun in Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria shows there is a long way to go in seafarer human rights, even though we are talking about them rather more.

It is also significant that the agencies which monitor the quality of ships and their suitability for charter, like SIRE and RightShip, have widened their remit to look not just at issues of technical fitness and crew competence, but the terms under which the seafarers have been employed, ensuring that there is full compliance with the Maritime Labour Convention. It will surely have the effect of squeezing the bad or marginal ship operator still further which automatically helps the best.

But of course, despite these more optimistic signs, it is not all sweetness and light as the funny flags, fragmented jurisdictions and a sizeable sub-standard sector continue to blight the industry. There are still plenty of people of varying sea-skills who are desperate for work and will fill up the berths on ships where seafarer happiness will rarely be evident.

You can argue that we are better at weeding out these floating menaces with port state control, but there are plenty of places in the world where the writ of a competent inspectorate does not run. It is not without significance that RightShip has reported that crew abandonment is at a new high with nearly 1,700 seafarers left in more than 100 ships when the owner has walked away, leaving them to, if they were lucky, the charity of the welfare agencies and some $40m in wages unpaid. Not much to be happy about there.