Urgent need for port-based welfare

Restrictions on shore leave mean seafarers are confined to their ships

By Helen Sampson and Iris Acejo

Anyone who has been to sea for more than a few weeks will have experienced the relief and joy of getting ashore and stretching their legs in the hubbub of normal life. As such, they will understand the significance of shore leave to seafarers and their mental health and wellbeing.

In their daily life and work, seafarers cope with a confined, moving, noisy, institutionalised and hierarchical environment. There is no escape. Seafarers live and work with their superiors and they experience an overall loss of autonomy that stretches beyond time spent on the job – they cannot choose who to be with, what to eat, where to go. They are also separated from the normal social and physical landscapes that are associated with being human. There are no trees or plants, no animals, and on cargo vessels their companions are invariably men of working age.

In this context, it is easy to understand the need for shore leave. Regrettably, in the modern shipping industry, faster vessel turnaround, the rise of 24/7 port working, and a desire to limit the time that ships spend on a berth, have all led to greatly reduced opportunities for shore leave. In 2020, the situation became considerably worse. In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, crews and passengers had their lives turned upside down by travel and shore leave restrictions. The consequences for health, safety and welfare have been documented elsewhere and as a result of a concerted effort by stakeholders some issues have been partially, if not fully, resolved.

However, in relation to shore leave, as the pandemic has progressed the situation appears to have become worse rather than better. In August 2021, we undertook an analysis of information which was already in the public do- main about shore leave worldwide. The material that we examined was made publicly available by Wilhelmsen. We collated information on 122 countries on August 11, 2021 and we repeated the exercise again on December 27, 2021. We found that in August just 27 countries permitted shore leave for seafarers. This fell to 26 in December. In August there were 14 countries for which there was no information on shore leave and by December this had dropped to nine. Eighty-one countries explicitly denied shore leave in August 2021, rising to 87 in December 2021. Given that ashore, many countries eased pandemic-related travel restrictions prior to the rise of Omicron, this worsening picture comes as a surprise, and it has potentially serious ramifications for seafarers’ wellbeing.

Importance of facilities

In the context of denied opportunities for shore leave, the existence of port- based welfare facilities for seafarers gains significance. Where such facilities are available within port limits, and where local authorities permit it, sea- farers have the opportunity to get away from the vessel for a few hours respite, stock up on sundry goods and wi-fi vouchers and buy food and drink.

Unfortunately, such welcome facilities are seldom available to seafarers. A global directory of seafarers’ centres collated by SeafarerHelp lists 398 seafarers’ centres worldwide. They

are most frequently found in the UK and US, but even there they are not always established within port limits. In the UK we identified seafarer centre provision within 25% of commercial ports. In the whole of South America just 12 seafarers’ centres are listed and the majority of these are in Brazil with several concentrated together in the same significant port area.

This situation leaves seafarers with limited access to port welfare facilities across the globe. In the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, when shore leave has been banned (by both countries and also some companies) and when seafarers are sometimes too afraid to go ashore, even when shore leave is permitted, the absence of port welfare provision has been keenly felt. As we recover from the pandemic, it is important that we remind ports and governments of their responsibilities to provide port-based welfare services for seafarers. In doing so, consideration has to be given to both the funding of services and the needs of seafarers.

Port-based welfare facilities can pro- vide seafarers with a brief sense of ‘normality’ even when their time, and their vessels’ time, is limited due to work schedules and even when the world is turned upside down by unforeseen and sometimes unforeseeable events. They are a key requirement for a key workforce, and it is high time that they were offered to hard-pressed seafarers working day in and day out across the globe.

Professor Helen Sampson and Dr Iris Acejo are based at the Seafarers International Research Centre, Cardiff University, UK. Please see www.sirc.cf.ac.uk