The Asia Maritime Breakfast Briefing: Seafarers Welfare Post MLC 2006 was the first week day event of this year’s Hong Kong Maritime Week. Before a full audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club a panel of experts discussed the importance of the Maritime Labour Convention in upholding the rights of seafarers. This is achieved primarily through provisions that cover the welfare of the seafarer in the following:
Payment of wages On-board complaint procedures On-board medical care Health, Safety and accident prevention Food and catering
On-board recreational facilities Accommodation Minimum age Medical certification Qualification of seafarers Hours of work or rest Seafarers employment agreements Manning levels for the ship Use any licensed/certified/regulated private recruitment and placement service
Nearly all of the above provisions are likely to have an impact on the work of Dr Olivier Lo Group medical director Occupational Health Services and maritime physician at the medical assistance firm, International SOS.
Compared to many professions, life at sea can be high risk with plenty of opportunities for physical injury where sufficient training has not been put in place or there is a lack of ship maintenance. Either failing is likely to get a shipowner penalised by port state control; both omissions are usually highly visible. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to the mental health of the crew.
Citing figures provided by the UK P&I Club, Dr Lo revealed that suicide rates among seafarers have tripled since 2014. In 2015 suicide was cited as the cause of death on 15.3% of identified mental health cases having risen from4.4% in 2014.
“Between 2001 and 2005, merchant seafarers scored the second highest level of suicides amongst all professions, after coal miners according to research published by Swansea University in 2013. Today, the rate of suicide for international seafarers is triple that of shore workers, according to the International Maritime Organisation.
Cadets appear to be the most vulnerable. Of the crew suicides noted by the UK P&I Club in 2015, some 40% of those who died were cadets, although analysis of the Club’s crew illness claims shows that poor mental health can impact crew of all ages, nationalities and ranks,” he added.
Mental health issues in an industry well know for its macho culture had long been stigmatised with crews unlikely to seek help. Such stigmas were slowly being eroded, Dr Lo was happy to report but with recent predictions from BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping predicting a deficit of 147, 500 officers by 20125 and Ocean Policy Research Foundation forecasting a shortfall of 364,000 seafarers by 2050, he said: The maritime industry needs to improve its performance in understanding that emotional health is a workplace issue.
There still remains a stark contrast in terms of emotional support through access to counselling that can often be found in the workplace on land, and on-board where the location is by its very nature remote and disconnected from counselling services and there is a lack of privacy.
Also touching on mental health issues was the divisional manager, Management Systems Certification at ABS, Suvendra Bagchi who highlighted the MLC 2016 Amendments, which deal with the elimination of harassment and bullying. Organisations such as ABS are responsible for auditing the provisions in MLC and while the provisions are only guidelines at this stage recommendations are already being put in place to tackle the issue.
Looking at ways to mitigate the risk of bullying and harassment it was suggested that a company should document its policy on harassment and bullying; include management programmes to raise awareness of the issues; generate a culture of intervention; formalize reporting through the complaint handling process; allow for flexibility in handling complaints and: ensure confidentiality to avoid future prejudice.
Gerry Buchanan, managing director at the Far East branch of the Liberian Register responsible for enforcing the MLC Convention pointed to the more common health problems arising on board Liberian Registered vessels in 2015, cardiac arrest was a leading problem which would suggest lifestyle including diet was an issue. On other matters covered by MLC, payment of wages was the leading source of complaints in 2015 and actually increased in 2016. Disputes involving repatriation or the lack of it was also a leading source of disputes.
Captain Soma Nair of Anglo Eastern Ship Management Ltd was concerned that the unstated aim of MLC of providing a level playing field through ensuring fair competition and marginalizing substandard shipping operations was not necessarily being achieved as a lot depends on the Flag of the vessel and the administration of the home country of the seafarer.
Despite the earliest form of MLC 2006 being in force since 2013, the industry continues to see cases of non-payment of wages, poor provisions for food ad catering requirements of seafarers, denial of seafarers right to repatriation and cases of abandonment.
ITF has assisted in a total 1,589 cases of owed wages in 2014 and had recovered US$59.38m in back pay for the seafarers involved.
If there had been room for an elephant in the packed room where the Briefing took place it would have been China. The country has still not implemented the 2014 Amendments, without which Hong Kong cannot either.
Asia Maritime would like to thank ABS, Liberian Register, Anglo Eastern Ship Management and International SOS for sponsoring the Briefing.