Seafarers need to be heard and respected

The industry needs to hear real-life stories first hand and humanise crew

By Carly Fields

Sue Henney may have fallen unintentionally into shipping – she graduated in Modern Language Studies and her first role out of university was to edit German and Latin American news for guests on cruise ships. But that unexpected start led her down a path of challenging current practice and improving seafarer welfare.

During her career she has worked for a number of maritime brands whose services were directed primarily at seafarers, including NEWSlink, Walport, Videotel and KVH. “This meant it was imperative that we understood as much as we could about seafarer needs and likes, and it obviously opened my eyes to the conditions crew faced at sea,” she tells The Sea.

A pivotal moment came when Henney attended a conference in 2010 and heard Canon Ken Peters of The Mission to Seafarers talking about a Filipino seafarer who was frantically trying to organise a video call home in one of the UK seafarer centres as it was his son’s birthday. When asked how old his son was, his reply was that he was one that day and they had never seen each other as he had been at sea since before the son was born. “It was this jolt of realisation that galvanised me to get involved more directly,” Henney says.

Today, Henney is a director at Idwal, a ship inspection specialist with over 250 marine surveyors covering 800 ports across 90 countries. Through this role, she has seen first-hand how the relationship between surveyor and crew changed over the pandemic. With Idwal inspecting hundreds of vessels every month, all around the world, the company had to pivot quickly when the pandemic struck to maintain safe operations. “At first, there was often limited access to the vessel, with some sections kept to crew access only.

However, as we got further into the pandemic, these restrictions were seen less and less. This is primarily down to the strict Covid-19 protocols we had in place for all attending surveyors, which we believe helped build an initial sense of trust between the crew and surveyor.”

She recognises that while crew welfare issues are not new to the industry, the pandemic helped to bring them more into the public domain. “However, we did, and still do, see first-hand, the extra stress that is being placed onto seafarers as a result of the pandemic and how this takes its toll on both their mental and physical health.”

Wellbeing focus

Idwal surveyors witness all kinds of conditions on board and interact daily with crew. At a strategic level, Henney notes that Idwal has several objectives around sustainability, one of which is to promote the importance of the health and wellbeing of crew within the company’s products and initiatives. “We recently implemented a crew welfare section into our inspection checklist in order for us to provide a clear and objective assessment of the welfare on board each vessel we inspect. This data can then not only be used to highlight current and ongoing issues further but also aims to resolve some of these issues.

“Of course, we are also very proud to show how seriously we feel about this by working with The Mission to Seafarers and sponsoring the Seafarers’ Happiness Index.”

Outside of Idwal, Henney is a trustee at ISWAN, as well as chair of the North West Port Welfare Committee (NWPWC), where she has been a committee member for the past 10 years before becoming chair last year. Henney describes port welfare committees as the “local tentacles of the Merchant Navy Welfare Board”, feeding back regional knowledge at a national level. Each committee comprises representatives from organisations concerned with the welfare of seafarers visiting the ports and the local seafaring community. The NWPWC is the largest port welfare committee in the UK and is proud to have representatives from an extremely broad range of organisations, including the MCA, Port Police, Border Force, Port Health, ITF, Nautilus, Peel Ports, port chaplains and seafarer charities. “Having all these stakeholders together in one room enables us to put the seafarer at the centre of our focus for a few hours and to ensure they have the best possible reception on arrival into our ports,” Henney says.

Her trusteeship of ISWAN is a newer position, commencing in early 2020. This meant that she was able to see the impact of the pandemic on seafarers at close quarters via the calls that came into SeafarerHelp and through the work done by the regional ISWAN teams in the Philippines, India and Nigeria.

Seafarers’ voice

Henney’s experiences from her three roles have crystallised for her the critical challenges that need to be addressed with regards to seafarer welfare. “Seafarers need to be heard more and have their voices respected more,” she states. “In much the same way our industry is trying to address the lack of diversity, we should apply the same positive goals to learning more from crew directly.”

While there are, she says, many great initiatives in place to bring these voices to the fore, more still needs to be done here. “We need to hear those real-life stories first hand and humanise crew more.”

The key crew issues that Henney hears about are wi-fi/communication with family, work and rest time, shore leave and non- or late payment of wages. “These are all stressful and potentially debilitating in their own ways.”

Of those issues, connectivity is number one. “Seafarers want wi-fi access so they can be in touch with their families and manage their lives from afar. For good or bad, we live in a world that is hyper-connected and who are we to deny that to a specific group of people during their rest time because they happen to work at sea?”

True partnership among the various charities, organisations, and other stakeholders and lobbying bodies will go a long way towards effecting change and keeping the focus on the main issues.

Regulators also have a part to play, Henney adds. “I think regulators should regulate more, to be honest. There should be real financial consequences for companies that are not treating their crew with decency and respect. We are a truly global industry, which makes it very difficult to have one set of rules and regulations for all, so it’s sometimes too easy for irresponsible shipping companies to hide behind the veil of confusion that falls into place when a spotlight is put on something that is wrong.”

Henney calls for more effort from regulators to put the seafarer at the centre of everything they do, as well as working harder at actually regulating.