A champion for seafarers

A champion for seafarers

By Carly Fields

Throughout the pandemic, Bjørn Højgaard has championed tirelessly for seafarers’ rights. He has staunchly promoted key worker status for seafarers and continued to challenge crew change issues, even when others could see no solution to the humanitarian crisis caused by closed national borders.

As CEO of the crewing and ship management specialist Anglo-Eastern Univan Group and chair of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, Bjørn sat on the frontline of what became a very real emergency in the early months of the pandemic. But he has more than a business link to caring about seafarers’ welfare.

Having spent more than seven years at sea and as a master mariner, Bjørn tells The Sea that he appreciates how important it is for seafarers to have confidence in their contract duration. For him, it has been a personal ‘high’ to be able to meet those obligations through the pandemic.

“I’ve been very disappointed, though, when I’ve met policy makers and regulators who readily want the ships and goods being moved into and out of their ports, but who have refused to be part of the solution for crew rotation,” he notes.

For him, there have been too many failings related to seafarers since the start of the pandemic, not least the weak role of many leaders who should have been protecting seafarers. “Leaders are paid to take the big view and make sweeping decisions in times of crisis, but many forget that real leadership is to lead for everyone, not just the popular focus. It’s the ability to leave no one behind that defines great generals on the battlefield and our political class has failed that litmus test dismally in ignoring the plight of the seafarers.” That, Bjørn says, is a real tragedy.

In his mind, there is no confusion: seafarers are truly key workers, working tirelessly to discharge their duties on the front line so we can all have our daily necessities and fight the pandemic.

Sadly, they have not received the public recognition they deserve. “It must be our industry’s biggest regret – that despite all the good shipping is doing for the world, the world is not understanding the plight of the individuals who serve onboard,” he says.

With the vaccine rollout underway throughout the world, there is light at the end of the crew-change tunnel for seafarers. But that is not an excuse for the industry to take its foot off the brake or lose ground on the achievements already made.

As a starting point, Bjørn urges that travel restrictions in place be eased for vaccinated seafarers. “Unfortunately, until today, when a country closes for seafarer travel, there is still no differentiation whether the seafarer is vaccinated or not. That’s of course not workable – not only does it not solve the crisis, it also makes people ask the very relevant question: ‘if getting vaccinated does not change anything, why would I get vaccinated?’” The ultimate goal must be that all seafarers are afforded key worker status and once vaccinated they must be able to travel unimpeded to and from ships.

Bjørn’s achievements in supporting seafarers through the pandemic were recognised at the MtS Singapore Seafarers’ Awards, where he was presented with the Shore-based Award for the shore-based person who has made a significant contribution to seafarers’ welfare.

Future challenges

Looking beyond the current crisis, The Sea asked Bjørn how he sees the role of the seafarer being redefined to embrace autonomy and remote operations. He said that while he does not expect to see truly autonomous ships – capable of existing independently, without human oversight or interference – within his lifetime, he does believe that the industry is on the cusp of a spate of automation in shipping which will change the role of seafarers. However, technology will “augment more than replace” the humans onboard ships, he says, which will lead to the positive outcome of safer, better ships with fewer risks of human errors.

“I am hugely positive about the improvements that technology will bring, both in terms of physical and mental welfare,” he says. “What automation will do is take away the most mundane tasks and leave the humans to higher-level decision making, and that can only be positive.” He gives the example of the introduction of autopilot which meant the helm no longer needed to be manned 24/7, freeing up crew to do to undertake a greater variety of jobs.

There is also innovation on the horizon when it comes to communications. To date, shipping has suffered from subpar communication technology. Even with very-small-aperture terminals (VSAT)

the bandwidth has been too small and the cost too high for shipping to really be ‘hooked up’ and thereby able to take advantage of digitalisation. “That is changing, however,” says Bjørn. “With low-earth-orbiting satellites now being deployed in the thousands, cheap, ubiquitous broadband connectivity will soon be commonplace for remote locations all over the planet, including onboard ships. That will be a game changer as ships will then have the same level of connectivity as we have come to expect ashore.”

Connectivity advantages

This has the added benefit of granting “always on” connectivity for seafarers, allowing them to keep in touch with friends and family at home and allowing access for remote content including news and TV. “This comes with its own set of challenges but is overall a great boon to a lifestyle that implies months on end away from home and it’ll be very welcome onboard,” he says. A ship will always remain a special place of work and living, and the basic premise of being a seafarer is not about to change. But with ships increasingly able to access the same information at the same time as can be accessed ashore, ships will become more connected, not just in a real, physical sense, but also in terms of belonging and purpose.

“Belonging and purpose are two of the biggest determinants of engagement and satisfaction on the job and I believe seafaring is going towards a bright future. Yes, you still have to be away from your family, friends and colleagues ashore, but you don’t have to be alone while being at sea.”

What this all boils down to is that people in this industry, whether at sea or ashore, need to feel valued and that they are contributing. For Bjørn, this means the provision of nutritious food, access and time to exercise, and real rest. “When those basic needs are met the best you can hope for is a sense of autonomy: you know what the job entails and you have appropriate freedoms to decide how to meet the job requirements, a sense of mastery or competence: you have the right tools, knowledge and attitude to do the job well, and a sense of purpose; and you understand how you belong to the ‘bigger picture’ and how what you do contributes to a mission beyond yourself.”

As the industry evolves, Bjørn remains confident that companies will continue to improve their provisions for seafarers. The proof will be a workforce that benefits from the motivation and satisfaction that comes with feelings of being valued and belonging.