– Seafarers are the backbone of the maritime industry
– Seafarers are the frontline warriors of global trade
– Seafarers are essential to shipping, essential to the world
These are some of the quotes that have been echoed by various people, organisations and companies around the world across the last few years and especially now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But are the seafarers really happy, content and do they feel valued?
While it could be mainly due to the current Covid-19 situation and its far-reaching effects especially with crew repatriation and sign on/off, the findings of Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) does not paint a very “happy” picture.
The index, however, gives valuable insights into the issues seafarers are facing, which will enable stakeholders to affect change where it is desperately needed.
The Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) is a barometer of the key issues facing those at sea today. This latest report for the second quarter of 2020 reflects the responses from crew members globally against the backdrop of a global crew change crisis precipitated by COVID-19.
The average SHI results for this quarter show seafarers’ happiness at 6.18/10, down from 6.30 in Q1.
The stress levels on board are also at a high – with fewer crews sailing, there are more reports of sickness and even suggestions of malingering. Seafarers are expected to work harder than ever and there is a pressure to keep hygiene standards at almost hospital levels. Ensuring cleanliness and hygiene is all well and good, but there needs to be the training and tools to do so.
These seem to be lacking on many vessels with the result once more of heightened stress.
“What was most disturbing were reports of sexism, racism and bullying all seemingly on the rise. There was also talk of heightened tensions with reports of drunkenness and secret cabin drinking – suggesting some are resorting to alcohol to perhaps numb the pain.”
The uncertainty of getting home combined with tiredness and fatigue makes for a difficult atmosphere onboard. Social life, already a difficult issue, has been hit further still as distancing onboard is attempted. Frustrations are intensified further as seafarers struggle to adhere to new guidance. Less positive contact and fewer interactions are leading to increased loneliness and isolation.
With separate dining, no sports and fewer people in shared areas, the impact of social distancing is making life onboard very difficult. While there is an acceptance that life is different now, there are also worrying reports of different nationalities treating the challenges of social distancing differently, causing consternation and sometimes even conflict onboard.
One issue which is perhaps symptomatic of the real problems facing crews is that of gangway security. Crews are advised that any visitors displaying symptoms should not be allowed on board, which makes perfect sense.
However, when we put ourselves in the position of the gangway watch it is not so straightforward. In hot climates, everyone arriving at the top of a long accommodation ladder is out of breath and sweating. Add masks and hard hats into this equation and there is almost a tragic comedy to the dance around seafarers being asked to do so much.
Despite well-meaning shore management missives about nutrition and the importance of healthy food boosting immunity, responses in this quarter suggest food spends have not been increased, no additional training given to cooks, and there are no signs of increased stocks of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Talk about helping crew stay healthier has seemingly remained just that on many vessels.
The same kinds of problems dogged the issue of fitness and health on board. Crews expressed their concerns about the number of visitors they have to deal with, and anxieties about the role air conditioning units could play in spreading the virus onboard. Even if technically unfounded, these fears still exist and there does not seem to be much in the way of reassurance.
Stresses are exacerbated further by concerns about other health issues, for instance, seafarers are very worried that they will not have access to medical treatment ashore if it is needed. Again, the signs suggest this concern is a real and valid one, as most ports are in lockdown and crew are not allowed ashore.
There is a growing sense that seafarers are suffering from not only the real stresses, but the imagined too. The anxiety is building, tensions rising, and it feels like there is a dam about to break.
Often talking to family and loved ones can help, but with the world in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic, the ability to speak or mail those at home only adds another layer of complexity. That said, the crew would far rather feel connected than not be.
The only category of the Index to see a rise this time around was the question of salary. It seems the only benefit of prolonged or extended contracts has been extra cash. That said, however, there was a sense that money is far less of a priority than we have seen in other reports.
The responses indicated that satisfaction is not about pay rises but simply the sense of relief when companies are seen to be looking after crews, paying on time and ensuring that families are taken care of.
At the time that the lockdown came into force in the UK in March, there were estimated to be around 255 Indian nationals studying at maritime colleges across the country. With the closure of all universities and the cancellation of flights to India, these students were left stranded, forced to stay in the country well beyond the period they had budgeted for.
This latest Seafarers Happiness Index report is a snapshot of a real crisis and shows the problems facing crews on a macro and micro level. Sadly, there are very few positive threads to pull. The message is that work has become almost intolerable and the sense of desperation to get home is only growing.
For this tired, irritable, stressed and overworked group, it cannot be long until the pressure gets too much. There is talk in the industry of a rise in suicides and the feedback received does nothing to ease those concerns. The number of accidents will likely rise too as people are not performing to their best when under stress. There are real concerns that seafarers are at breaking point.
These issues need to be constantly highlighted and talked about widely if they are to bring change. There is a growing concern about the wellbeing of seafarers and what has now turned into a humanitarian crisis is only getting worse due to inaction. The key takeaway from the Seafarers Happiness Index findings is to throw more light on the subject of seafarer issues and appeal to the power corridors to intervene and put measures in place to protect the seafaring community.
The full report can be downloaded here..