100 solutions for enhancing seafarer welfare

Pan-industry project aims to improve conditions at sea

By Verity Relph

There is much enthusiasm within the industry about improving seafarer welfare, but in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen little in the way of positive change in seafarer living and working conditions. What are the real, tangible changes that could transform life at sea?

Over the course of 2023, industry leaders gathered to debate just that. The Mission to Seafarers facilitated a series of roundtable discussions held in Singapore and London. Building upon data from the Seafarers Happiness Index and with supporting insights from sponsors NorthStandard, Idwal, and Inmarsat, the roundtables brought together a range of industry leaders, shipowners, managers and charterers to engage in wide-ranging discussions over their shared experiences of seafarers’ needs. The idea was to leverage their collective energy in order to drive meaningful change in seafarer welfare.

The result? The proposal of 100 diverse solutions, ideas and initiatives that could improve seafarers’ overall wellbeing, safety, and quality of life. These solutions cover a wide range of areas, from access to shore leave and connection with loved ones, to career progression and management onboard and ashore.

“This initiative is about having the imagination, vision and determination to fix the ills which are so damaging to seafarers,” says Steven Jones, CEO of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative and founder of The Seafarers Happiness Index, who spearheaded the campaign.

“The focus had been to move the debate forward,” Steven explains, “to stop talking about the problems and plot a route forward for actual answers. To that backdrop the senior shipping people who engaged have been fantastic at looking at the actual fixes which can make life better at sea.

“At the core, it is about respect, support, collaboration, innovation, and policy change.”

Key focus areas

The proposed ‘fixes’ and initiatives can be divided across several key focus areas.

The first focus is on better treatment and recognition of seafarers. It suggests ideas like treating crew with respect, tackling criminalisation of seafarers, advocating for their importance, promoting diversity, and improving recruitment.

Actions such as fostering better respect, recognition and empathy from shore management can have enormous benefits for seafarer mental health and ultimately lead to better performance and productivity for the industry.

Another idea is ensuring that cultural differences are explored and managed in the right way, leading to a more supportive and harmonious working environment.

The second focus is on direct support for seafarers. It recommends actions like providing better food, connectivity, working conditions, mental health support, career development, and compensation.

There are diverse ideas ranging from hydroponic-grown fruit and vegetables on board to introducing rolling contracts to provide better job security for seafarers.

The third and final focus is on industry collaboration and innovation. It proposes reaching out and engaging with industry bodies with a view to building a stronger network to share best practices and establish common goals related to seafarer welfare and wellbeing.

This focus area also covers using technology and data to address issues, education and outreach, promoting gender equality, and enhancing engagement.

As well as these short-term goals, the proposals also set out medium- term ideas on topics such as essential worker status, work hours, taxation, and mentoring. Longer-term goals include pre-employment mental health assessments to promote the wellbeing and safety of seafarers, and introducing IMO/ILO numbers for seafarers to bring greater standardisation, security and accountability to the industry.

Getting the industry on board

The 100 solutions compel every part of the industry to make improvements, and indeed there are ideas in the report that every organisation can contribute towards.

“There was a sense from the meetings that if implemented collaboratively, these proposals could lead to improved welfare, wellbeing and sustainability”, says Steven.

However, he also acknowledges the ambitious scope of the proposals: “One has to be careful throwing 100 solutions into the mix. There is a danger of overloading the system, and for good things to go unnoticed or to be ignored. With so many ideas to improve the reality of seafarers then the next steps are about plotting a path forward.”

The key, he believes, is maintaining momentum and commitment from stakeholders. The plan is to engage with industry to identify the people, companies and organisations which can champion these changes. He adds that working with ports could be the way to drive tangible changes: “In further discussions, we have seen that focusing on ports and terminals may be a pivotal way of ensuring we can build solutions into the experiences of seafarers.”

There will, inevitably, be challenges on the road ahead. “As we know, overcoming barriers like costs, resistance to change, and lack of data may prove challenging,” says Steven. “Shipping is about challenges, so they have to be anticipated. What is needed is a means of navigating them. Change is not simple, easy or straightforward. It is about making sure the solutions can work, and about ensuring that they are focused on the right parts and stakeholders within the chain. Changemaking is about bringing the right vision together with the right people and the best mechanism to deliver the change needed.”

As the latest Seafarers Happiness Index data has shown, there has been a consistent decline in happiness at sea over the course of 2023. It appears that though the world has emerged from the pandemic, conditions for seafarers have not improved. Crews are reporting feeling overburdened, undervalued and disconnected. Exhausting workloads due to crewing shortages and administrative burdens, together with limited shore leave and unreliable connectivity, are just some of the issues reported.

Reflecting on what difference the proposed solutions could make for a seafarer starting out in their career, Steven says: “If fixes work for one seafarer, then they can work for all. If we can find the means of making life more enjoyable, the food better, the connectivity improved, the spaces on board more conducive to interactions, and having access to get ashore and enjoy life, then everyone benefits. If we can have seafarers listened to and respected, then we are on the right path. Which may mean 1 down, 99 to go.”

Ultimately, 100 solutions is about fostering a collective effort to drive through positive changes for seafarers. The range of challenges facing those at sea can seem overwhelming, but these big ideas and small actionable steps could make seafaring a more attractive and sustainable career, one that is happier, more fulfilling and healthier. The solutions would also ensure that seafarers feel respected and valued, and give them agency over their lives and careers.

Read more here. Verity Relph is the grants and impact manager at The Mission to Seafarers.