Nautilus news

Day of the Seafarer speech to Nautilus NL branch symposium

25 June 2019

Speech by Mark Dickinson, general secretary Nautilus International, at the Union's Dutch branch meeting symposium on wellness in Rotterdam on Day of the Seafarer 25 June 2019.

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It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today on the occasion of IMO Day of the Seafarer.

This year’s theme is on the importance and value of women within shipping industry. We are all encouraged to use the hashtag:

I am on board with gender equality. I would therefore just like to take this moment to confirm that Nautilus is very much onboard with Gender Equality.

Now before I get into the business of seafarer wellness can I just mention the B word – yes of course its Brexit.

I want to stress that UK maybe leaving the EU but it is not leaving Europe. And as a Union we are not going anywhere either. If the UK leaves the EU, and I stress IF, we will stay united - one branch in, one branch out and one in between. And our mission to protect and promote our members interests across national borders will be undiminished.

Colleagues, nearly exactly one year ago today [June 2018] the International Maritime Organization launched its 'Day of the Seafarer' campaign focussed on seafarer wellbeing.

That campaign threw a spotlight on seafarer mental health and looked at strategies to tackle onboard stress and other issues affecting seafarer's mental conditions.

The IMO's move followed several studies that reported a rise in depression among seafarers. One by Yale University and the UK based Sailor's Society heard from over 1,000 seafarers that more than a quarter [26%] had felt 'down', 'depressed' or 'hopeless' while at sea.

Some have called this an 'epidemic of mental health' - and in shipping we have exacerbated circumstances which make it more pronounced.

As we all know, long contracts at sea, being thousands of miles away from families and friends, often with inconsistent or no internet access, can be incredibly isolating and challenging for seafarers.

There is isolation, there is bullying, and you can't go home at the end of the day and get away from it.

That seafarers are at acute risk of mental health issues has been well documented. An Australian study found that almost 6% of deaths at sea are attributable to suicide, rising dramatically if probable suicides – seafarers going missing at sea under suspicious circumstances – are considered.

A year on from that IMO Day of the Seafarer campaign launch and awareness of seafarer wellbeing and mental health is much higher, both at sea and onshore. I hope that in a years’ time we will also still be talking about how we can advance gender equality.

But let me return to the issue I am here to talk you about because there is much more to be done on seafarers’ wellness.

You may have picked up on recent calls within the maritime industry for mental health of seafarers to be given the same importance as vessel safety – and enshrined in international regulation.

For example, the Sailors Society launched its 'Not on My Watch Campaign' in May, calling for wellbeing training to be enshrined in the Maritime Labour Convention and the Nautical Institute similarly wants mental health awareness to be part of First Aid Officer training under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).

Now, you might well be thinking that the idea of standardising mental health training is a risky one, and that there is no 'one size fits all' solution. I would agree. Nautilus recognises the importance that quality training on mental health and wellbeing could play. However, it is vital that any alignment of seafarer wellbeing in the international regulatory framework is a baseline for a minimum training required. Not the standard of training.

Clearly every person is unique, and every culture has a different way of responding to mental health. Training, wherever possible, should be tailored to individual situations and reflect cultural diversity.

In October we helped to launch a free training package which aims to help seafarers cope with the challenges of shipboard life. Put together by KVH Videotel in association with the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), the training is intended for all crew and includes a short video, facilitator notes and information booklets.

Importantly, the programme not only presents information from industry experts but also lets seafarers themselves tell their own story in interviews and short statements, describing the path to achieving happiness.

Through resources like this we are not preaching to seafarers. We are listening; and we are learning.

But let me make something very clear, no end of wellness training is going to compensate for a bad employer. And we should never let a bad employer think that offering, for example, free yoga sessions, instead of paying a decent salary, so an employee can pay the bills, or has enough time off to spend time with family, is going to protect mental health and wellbeing.

Part of what we are hearing from our member is around physical health too. Our younger members are more likely to be actively interested in healthy eating and fitness. A recent study found that nearly a third of people under 25 are teetotal. This represents a step change in health awareness. More people are identifying as vegetarian or vegan, for example, or simply reducing their intake of meat. Flexitarianism that’s called I am reliably informed!

And seafarers, like many of their contemporaries, want healthy eating options at work.

This should be good news for employers. Taking a vessel off-charter to care for a sick crew member can cost huge sums of money. This is a win, win situation, a happy, healthy crew, is a good thing for everyone.

In Europe we are working together at sectoral level to look at improving nutrition onboard.

We are hearing also how important staying connected with loved ones ashore is for seafarer mental health and wellbeing.

Nautilus has campaigned for all seafarers have access to free internet service at sea – connectivity similar to that enjoyed by those of us who get to go home to loved ones every night – because after all, the ship is the seafarer’s home for many months of the year.

The Maritime Labour Convention recommends that reasonable access to ship-to-shore telephone communications, and email and Internet facilities should be made available to seafarers, with any charges for the use of these service being reasonable in amount.

We think internet access should be free. But we concede that guidance is needed as to how it is used and again we are working in Europe to develop such guidance.

Our 2018 Connectivity at Sea report found that, despite 88% of the 2,000 seafarers we surveyed confirming they have internet access at sea, they often have limited access at high cost.

That could have long-term consequences for the maritime industry.

We have heard anecdotally that the demand for connectivity from seafarers is such that owners not providing it are struggling with crew retention.

Seafarers will avoid signing on with vessels that have no internet access, or that charge for internet access.

According to Mark Warner, Inmarsat marketing and PR director 'People are even giving up careers at sea if they can't get it.'

This comment chimes with Nautilus' own research, in which nearly two thirds of respondents to our Connectivity at Sea Survey said they would consider moving company if it provided better onboard connectivity.

Now I am sure you have all been part of, or privy to, conversations with employers and others who reveal nagging concerns about onboard connectivity and mental health: fear over how connectivity affects socialisation; fear over too much information from home; and fear over crew fatigue and vessel safety.

Our own research dispels many of the myths around connectivity onboard. It found that crew not speaking a common language is viewed by seafarers as having the highest impact on social interaction onboard, with crew using personal devices or spending time alone in cabins following closely behind.

Our research also found that internet connectivity onboard greatly improves the ability to communicate with loved ones back home, thus mitigating the loneliness of being away from home. It makes seafaring more bearable and potentially more attractive as a career.

Recent research by International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), a grouping of national shipowners' associations, back up our own findings.

It's survey of 276 shipowners with 11,665 ships, found that the positive benefits associated with internet access onboard outweigh the feared safety concerns around technology.

Responses showed that the provision of internet access to seafarers for personal use may have improved the mental health and well-being of seafarers (60%) and the morale of seafarers in the company (69%).

And a whopping 85% of responding companies reported that seafarer rest and sleep had been unaffected - or improved - by access to the internet.

Fears over internet access leading to poor work performance were proved unfounded by 96% of companies reporting no deterioration at all.

It's good to hear that some of those myths are being debunked, but the reality remains that the life of the seafarer can be one of isolation, of loneliness and in the worst possible cases of fear.

That is why Nautilus International will continue to work with our social partners and stakeholders in the shipping industry to improve wellness and mental health for maritime and shipping professionals and their welfare onboard and onshore. We must also ensure that employers and governments understand that there is no alternative to treating workers well and ensuring that they can retire at the time of their choosing and with a decent income.

Nautilus International uniting maritime and shipping professionals since 2009 has been working to ensure that the minimum standards set out in the MLC are continuously improved.

As we ponder these issues on the IMO Day of the Seafarer it seems appropriate that we also include in that Convention appropriate additional measures for improving workers wellness and mental health.

One way we can do this is via the International Transport Workers’ Federation and as the seafarers’ unions prepare for the next ILO Special Tripartite Committee meeting in early 2021. Changes to the MLC will require the support of governments and shipowners so watch this space as we seek to match words to actions.

Colleagues let me conclude by reminding you on day of the Seafarer that we are stronger together, the last 10 years have proven that. By continuing to have a coherent 'One Union' voice and a clear strategy to support maritime and shipping professionals onboard and ashore we can help improve their jobs, their health, their retirement and their happiness.

Therein lies the secret to true wellness!

Thank you.