A rock for Ukrainian seafarers

Oleg Grygoriuk urges those at sea to support their war-weary colleagues

By Carly Fields

The immense pressures on Ukrainian seafarers today might be hard to put into words, but please do not shy away from offering support and solidarity, Oleg Grygoriuk, chairman of the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU), tells The Sea. Oleg advises that non-Ukrainian seafarers stay calm, offer support and say warm words to their Ukrainian colleagues – “because it’s impossible to understand what we’re going through”.

“If you see a Ukrainian seafarer, just give a bit of support and cheer them up because we’re really running through challenging times and every word will matter,” he says.

Ukrainian seafarers face mental, physical, financial, and political pressures, all of which have the potential to impact their life and effectiveness at sea. “You need to be really mentally strong to think about your work instead of thinking about your family in Ukraine with Russian terrorists sending missiles every night to peaceful cities and villages. You never know who’s going to be next,” Oleg says.

Supporting hand

The MTWTU is there to support all Ukrainian seafarers who need assis- tance, in whatever guise. “Throughout the two years of the full-scale invasion the support we have offered has been very dynamic. At the very beginning of the war, the largest challenge was the evacuation of our seafarers’ families from the occupied territories, or from territories that were under constant challenge and attacks.”

The Union evacuated more than 500 people over two months from occupied territories and from Odesa to outside of the country. The seafarers who now have to live abroad because of the war then had further challenges to overcome: “They need to pay the rent, they need to pay European prices for food – all those costs have just simply doubled for them, but their salary hasn’t.”

Oleg and his team are trying to push the market up in terms of salaries, but there’s a cap for certain positions on board the ships. “We’re trying to address the shipowners and shipowners’ associations, and it feels like we have made progress but the seafarers need more: more money, more rest periods, more welfare activities,” he says. They also need trust in tomorrow, as the absence of firm foundations is really difficult for seafarers, there is no chance to plan anything, even short-term. “This is where the role of the union is very important. We can give that sense of optimism, that sense of trust. They know that they can rely on us, and we can help them.”

The Union has also given financial assistance to seafarers and their families to buy the basics, especially for those who lost everything. Oleg and his team also provide mental support for Ukrainian seafarers whose parents or relatives are in the war, those who have lost their properties, those with properties in the occupied territories, and the children of seafarers and families who have suffered from the shelling.

Loss of cadets

The invasion has had a detrimental impact on the number of Ukrainian cadets training for a career at sea, something that Oleg is working hard to address. “There has been a significant drop in the number of cadets, but we continue to support our academies in different ways,” he says. “We have several projects, including a partnership with the ITF Seafarers’ Trust where the first group of 50 cadets from the Kherson State Maritime Academy – who were on their courses when the invasion started – were sent to an academy in Lithuania.

“They managed to study in parallel while they were in Klaipeda and we paid for that and food, lodging, dormitories, and everything else. They were in safety, which was the first priority for us, and they managed to get their diplomas and are now working at sea. We are very proud of that project which we believe was very, very successful.”

Last year, the Union started a project for 10 cadets who were under 18 – the conscription age in Ukraine. “We selected them and sent them to Klaipeda before they turned 18 and now they’re studying in two academies – Lithuanian and Kherson. We’re creating these opportunities, giving the market highly qualified seafarers for the future,” Oleg says.

His passion for the next generation of seafarers is founded in his own early career. He’s from a “maritime dynasty” he tells The Sea: both his grandfather and father were chief engineers. “My father told me, ‘You’re not going to be a chief engineer. You’re going to the deck’. So I became a chief officer. That was the beginning.”

He too studied at the Ukrainian maritime academy and on graduation headed straight on to foreign-flagged bulk carriers, ro-ros, and passenger ships. But a run-in with a ship owner 15 years ago while trying to defend his rights brought him to his current job at the Union. While he admits that he sometimes misses the sea he has found his calling in helping others through the Union.

He particularly values being part of the regulatory process at the IMO and discussing the challenges of the Ukraine situation in different working groups. “On every political and social level we want countries to not tire of the situation because it’s almost two years since the invasion and we understand that the focus is changing today – war in Yemen, Gaza, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in Taiwan. All those issues are obviously attracting the attention of the world community and the shipping industry.

“But the war goes on, so that’s why we need to continue to support by all means the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian seafarers, and the Ukrainian maritime community. Everyone should stand together.” He adds that the best help is companies continuing to hire Ukrainian seafarers with a competitive salary.

Spreading goodwill

He also promotes Ukraine as a maritime powerhouse through his position as an IMO Good- will Maritime Ambassador.

Through this role, Oleg pro- motes Ukrainian cadets and encourages school leavers to consider a career at sea. “I’m really proud of this,” he says. “I also lobby for Ukraine as one of the largest maritime nations, which continues to be there for foreign shipping companies.”

In recognition of the work that Oleg has done to support seafarers, he was presented with a Special Award at the MtS’ Singapore Seafarers Awards.

The Special Award was added to the Mission’s usual list of six and acknowledged his efforts in leading advocacy for Ukrainian seafarers and their families following the outbreak of the war.

“The award was really touching and amazing – I felt fantastic. We do what we have to do in the given circumstances and when the maritime community recognises your efforts it is really, really touching. It’s really hard to explain how much effort and personal resources I have put in to make all these projects and support happen. Thousands and thousands of seafarers and their families have received something from the Union and its partners.

“I believe that without us and without our work and our partners’ work, things could be much worse for Ukrainian seafarers. I’m really proud of that.” He also thanks his “fantastic” staff: “I appreciate their support every day and every minute because they are great as well.”

In a closing comment, Oleg gives his appreciation to the armed forces of Ukraine for defending the country. “These are the bravest men and women in the world. What they are doing is a fantastic achievement. We could lose our country were it not for them. They are the real heroes of today. And I’d like to give a huge amount of appreciation to them from our Union and from our seafarers.”