For an industry as critical to the global economy as international shipping, there is surprisingly little known about some of its inner workings – particularly those pertaining to the conditions experienced by seafarers, many of whom spend long months working far from home and often in something of a regulatory grey area.
Apart from industry insiders, many people – isolated from shipping’s day-to-day operations – assume that it functions smoothly in a properly regulated framework. However, a new report from the Mission to Seafarers charity highlighted by The National this week shows that when it comes to the issue of working conditions, things are far from rosy, something that is leading to concerns about recruitment and retention of staff.
Given that, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, the world’s 50,000 merchant ships are manned by nearly two million seafarers, such concerns about pay, work and conditions are significant and need to be taken seriously.
Aside from the sheer numbers of workers concerned, global shipping is an enormous, interconnected and valuable industry. Worth an estimated $14 trillion in 2019, the industry transports nearly 2 billion tonnes of crude oil, 350 million tonnes of grain and a billion tonnes of iron ore each year, delivery volumes that cannot be matched effectively by road, rail or air. Overall, shipping facilitates more than 80 per cent of global trade.
But shipping has weaknesses that were exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic when port restrictions led to dozens of crews being left stranded for months…A framework outlined by the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure includes fines for owners of abandoned vessels, with an additional penalty for each seafarer left on board.
Chirag Bahri, international operations manager at the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, warned that despite some changes in the industry globally, many seafarers were still having contractual issues “especially with shore leave, [and not enough] food and water on board”.
If such deficiencies are not addressed, it will become harder for the industry to find new seafarers and keep the ones it already has. International Chamber of Shipping reports already say there is an “overall shortage in the supply of officers”.
Shipping already faces several challenges, such as increasing environmental regulation, digital innovations that are threatening traditional business models, and competition from air and freight. Adding a recruitment crisis due to sub-standard working conditions to that list is far from desirable.
Far-sighted companies will invest in training
and welfare, and offer appropriate packages to retain staff. Those who fixate
on the bottom line will lose out.