The long road back to ‘normal’

Food shortages, extended rotations and contract challenges leave seafarers feeling trapped

By Steven Jones

The Q2 2023 Seafarers Happiness Index report revealed a concerning decline in satisfaction levels among seafarers across all the aspects we explore as part of the SHI. The drop seemingly reflects frustration with perceived delays in returning to pre- pandemic standards across a range of key issues.

Despite a return to normal in most aspects of life, crew changes remain delayed, leading to extended periods spent on board – which in turn leads to frustration and has a negative impact on seafarers’ physical and mental health. We have also heard that contract conditions and wages have suffered, resulting in unfavourable working conditions and financial strains.

Despite progress in overcoming the worst effects of the pandemic, seafarers feel that further improvements have reached their limits. Operational realities and employment standards have fallen to a lower level than before, leaving seafarers feeling trapped in a cycle of diminishing conditions. This downward shift in standards must be addressed to uplift seafarers’ experiences.

Seafarers face a range of other challenges too, beyond the desire for relief and fair remuneration. Contracts are still being altered or disregarded, and issues surrounding wages have become increasingly problematic. From non-payment of wages to gradual salary cuts, rising taxes, increased living costs, and the harsh realities of inflation, seafarers are confronting numerous difficulties in their profession.

There is a strong impression that while employers were quick to respond to the pressures of the Covid-19 crisis, the return to pre-pandemic standards has been far slower. Extended crew changes have become the new norm for many seafarers, and there is a general lack of clarity on relief crew joining vessels. All told, uncertainty persists, and seafarers reluctantly accept that they are likely to remain at sea for longer durations than anticipated, even though travel restrictions have been lifted. It seems excuses are far easier to come by than actions.

Another serious issue that also emerged in that quarter saw seafarers raising concerns about food and drinking water. The issue of limited, charged or restricted access to drinking water has emerged as a significant concern among seafarers, raising worries about hydration and overall health.

Supplies ‘shortage’

Additionally, vessels deliberately running low on supplies awaiting cheaper port calls has led to challenges in providing adequate provisions, impacting seafarers’ overall satisfaction. These conditions are troubling, contradict the image of a modern and professional industry, and are something that the wider industry needs to rail against. Such concerns are more akin to coffin ships of the Victorian age, not the modern, professional industry we profess to be. The very concept that seafarers could be going hungry and thirsty going about their work should be anathema to all of us.

Seafarers also reported other concerns – some which are worryingly consistent across SHI reports. These include issues such as high workload, lack of private time, and inadequate gym facilities, indicating the growing demands on their time and the struggle to achieve a work- life balance. Such issues harm their physical and mental well-being.

There was also frustration about excessive paperwork. Despite moves to digitalise the industry, the role of administration and bureaucracy is increasingly difficult to manage with existing crewing levels. Simplifying administrative processes could contribute to a more efficient and fulfilling work environment.

The fact there is a sense of ‘too few people to do too much work’ persists, and seafarers face real challenges related to work and rest hour violations. Those at sea feel that the rules are not being applied and auditors are not seeing the real situation. The net results are overwork, fatigue and stress. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps no surprise to see the latest data show a marked drop in satisfaction.

Steven Jones is the founder of the Seafarers’ Happiness Index, in association with Idwal and the Standard Club. The Index is designed to monitor and benchmark seafarer satisfaction levels by asking 10 key questions and serves as an important barometer of seafarer satisfaction with life at sea. Questions focus on a range of issues, from mental health and wellbeing, to working life and family contact. If you would like more information, to see the data or read more in-depth reports, visit for access to the latest results and to have your say.