The committees who care – a look at Britain's port welfare committees

10 March 2020

Port welfare committees have been coordinating support services for seafarers in UK ports for over seven decades. Andrew Linington explores the past, present and future of a British institution that is now being successfully emulated in other countries

Barely a year after the outbreak of the Second World War, struggling to cope with the needs of merchant seafarers affected by the hostilities, the British government launched an initiative to transform maritime welfare provision.

Over seventy years on, the far-seeing initiative – the creation of a system of port welfare committees – is not only alive and well, supporting an ever-expanding range of projects to care for seafarers, but is also being exported around the world to help other countries meet their Maritime Labour Convention responsibilities.

Port welfare committees (PWCs) were established by the UK government shortly after it created the Seamen's Welfare Board in October 1940 to provide coordinated assistance to the crews of ships caught up in the conflict, including foreign seafarers on vessels from countries invaded by Germany.

Britain had adopted the International Labour Organisation's recommendation on seafarer welfare in 1938 and wanted PWCs to play a key part in putting this convention into practice, by bringing owners, unions, maritime charities and authorities together to provide expert advice on the provision of welfare work in ports, facilities for visiting seafarers, and on issues affecting seafarers' health.

Today, that role remains as important as ever, and there are 15 PWCs covering the entire coastline of the UK – plus one in Gibraltar. With a combined membership of 358 and each meeting three times a year, the committees continue to serve as an important platform for regional maritime partnerships to monitor and improve the quality of welfare services for seafarers.

North West PWC

North West PWC chairman John Wilson presents a certificate of commendation to port chaplain Dave Robertson, who is retiring after 17 years on the committee. 'I’ve attended regularly and I’ll miss it a lot,' he said. 'The PWC is a great way of working, with its multi-disciplinary nature enabling you to network and find out what’s going on.'

The latest meeting of the North West PWC – one of the largest committees – was held at Nautilus International's offices at Mariners' Park, Wallasey, and was almost standing room only. The boardroom was packed with 30 representatives from the union, shipping companies and port authorities, maritime charities and missions, the Department for Transport, port health officers, the UK Border Force, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

Agenda items ranged from Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) grants, to information leaflets for visiting seafarers, and a programme to replace cars and minibuses used for seafarer support services.

With topical concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the meeting provided the chance to get 'best practice' advice from port health officers and information about the impact on seafarers.

Following some appalling cases of seafarer abandonment, members of the North West PWC have worked closely to provide a template for supporting the crews of detained ships. The meeting heard details of current problems onboard a Latvian-flagged vessel which failed a port state control inspection in Birkenhead. Nautilus/ITF inspector Tommy Molloy, who has been helping to secure owed wages and repatriation for some of the crew, said the template provides useful guidance on 'how we direct our efforts to get those with the responsibility to take the appropriate action'.

The committee was told of concerns raised by ship visitors about bullying and harassment onboard – most notably on ships with just one or two from a country within a crew. 'This is becoming more noticeable,' said John Wilson, chief executive of the Liverpool Seafarers' Centre. 'Mix and match crewing is leading to difficulties onboard and impacts upon social isolation.'

The meeting also heard feedback on a project funded by the ITF Seafarers' Trust and administered by the MNWB in which mobile wi-fi or 'mi-fi' units providing access to up to 20 seafarers at a time are made available to visiting vessels. Mr Wilson said the pilot scheme has been so well received by seafarers that more mi-fi units are now needed.

Chaplain Mark Moeller with seafarers trying out the mi-fi system on a visit to Tilbury docks

Concerns were also raised about the practice of crew, rather than dockers, lashing containers and cargo – with reports that some seafarers are 'scared witless' about working at height without proper training and protection.

Shortcomings in training for ships' cooks were also discussed, with port health officers highlighting the wide variations in standards and refresher requirements. They warned that the need for more consistency is demonstrated by some 'quite frightening' cases of lapses in basic hygiene, disinfection, temperature control and cross-contamination.

Nautilus welfare services manager Mick Howarth gave the meeting an update on the union's caseworkers, who last year secured hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants and other forms of support for former seafarers and their families, and who are now working to recover compensation for those suffering from the effects of exposure to asbestos while working at sea.

The committee's discussions also covered problems in safe access to visiting ships, as well as the continued difficulties faced by many seafarers in getting shore leave.

MNWB chair Captain Andrew Cassels said the Mariners' Park meeting provided a good example of how PWCs should work. 'There are about 140 different maritime charities, 70 of them Merchant Navy, and this pulls it all together, giving a platform to discuss everything that is going on and a good way to get connected to the visiting seafarers' side of things,' he added.

'I see the PWCs as the jewel in the MNWB crown, and I am hugely impressed by the way they connect everyone to improve the provision of welfare. By sharing the workload and pooling our knowledge, together we can achieve so much more than doing our own things.'

Mr Wilson has chaired the North West PWC for more than a decade, replacing former Nautilus welfare services manager Liz Richardson in the post, and says he seeks to encourage a healthy exchange of views. 'It is important that everyone feels they have a voice,' he explained.

Mr Molloy said he values the way in which the PWC helps to build cooperation between all those working for the good of seafarers. 'There's a real value in making contacts that can provide the ability to take the most direct way to contact the right people in the various organisations who can provide assistance,' he pointed out.

Bristol PWC

In the following week, the Bristol PWC met at the port's seafarers' centre. It's a much smaller committee than the North West PWC, but chair Garry Strickland, from the Sharpness Dock Company, said it still manages to bring together all the key agencies and stakeholders.

This meeting also spent time discussing the threats posed by the coronavirus and the impact of Brexit, as well as the positive effects of the Maritime Labour Convention on seafarer welfare cases.

There were talks, too, on such subjects as detained vessels, concerns over onboard bullying and harassment, ship visitors' access to vessels, wi-fi facilities for seafarers, transport to and from the port for visiting crews, and how the PWC could support activities being held under the banner of Seafarers Awareness Week later in the year.

'I've been involved with the committee for eight or nine years now,' said Mr Strickland, 'and we have got a great team here who make a real difference in supporting serving and retired seafarers, not just at times of crisis but on a regular day-to-day basis. Building good communications and networking between us all really helps to get a resolution.'

Mission to Seafarers (MtS) port chaplain Revd Jeremy Hellier said the PWC plays a crucial role in enabling the MtS, the Sailors' Society and the Apostleship of the Sea to coordinate their work in the most effective way. 'We can get on with our own things, but also come together here to get the big picture in a way that harmonises our separate efforts,' he added. 'Between us all, we cover just about everything.'

Tyne Area PWC

The work of the PWCs is coordinated by the MNWB and feeds into its wider strategies, linking into national initiatives such as the port levy project, which aims to build on the long-standing success of the system used in Tees port by encouraging other authorities to introduce a voluntary scheme of tonnage-based payments to help fund seafarer welfare services.

The MNWB said a joint initiative between the Tyne Area PWC and Tyne Port Authority to launch a local levy scheme in 2017 has served as an excellent example of a modern partnership scheme between shipowners, ports and welfare providers to support and improve seafarers' welfare in port and has set a template that could be used in other ports yet to benefit from a welfare levy fund.

With the Port of Tyne donating 50p for every £1 raised through the levy, funds totalling £14,250 were raised last year alone, and shared between the Mission to Seafarers, Fishermen's Mission and Apostleship of the Sea.

The Board's grants programme includes a £500 fund available to each PWC each year, which can be employed to help promote seafarers' welfare and raise the local profile of the committee. The South West PWC used this to organise a children's art competition, held in conjunction with Seafarers Awareness Week, and this successful initiative is now being copied by the London and Thames committee, which will use the winning artwork to produce a calendar promoting the PWC and its work in the region.

The MNWB also provides an emergency fund which can be used by PWCs to ease the ordeals of abandoned seafarers and fishing vessel crews, through such things as taking them on recreational trips or providing a TV or DVD player onboard.

However, the work of the PWCs is also as varied as its membership – with a rich diversity of activities being carried out. For example, the Central & West Scotland committee helps to organise regular 'bon voyage' evenings at the City of Glasgow College for cadets going to sea for the first time, while the East Anglia committee has helped to secure the provision of a community-funded defibrillator in the port of Lowestoft.


Members of the Central and West Scotland PWC staging an event in 2018 to raise awareness of their work to help seafarers

PWCs seek to ensure that lessons from specific incidents are not lost. The Tees committee, for example, helped to develop a comprehensive emergency welfare plan following a bomb scare onboard a ship and the subsequent confusion among the authorities about what to do with the crew of the ship involved. And the East Anglia PWC held a special debriefing session to consider the case of the offshore support vessel Malaviya Twenty, which had been detained in Great Yarmouth for over two years.

Throughout the past 70 years, a routine but vital element of the committees' work has been to support the provision of good facilities ashore for seafarers. In the past year this has helped to secure refurbishments to seafarers' centres in Gibraltar, Invergordon, Fowey and Warrenpoint, as well as the launch of a new drop-in centre for the crews of ships visiting Groveport on the Trent.

With the UK now stepping up its efforts to police the ILO Convention 188 on the safety and wellbeing of fishing vessel crews, many of the PWCs have been involved in discussions on the special needs of the sector.

PWCs have become increasingly proactive in assessing issues affecting seafarers' welfare in their regions. This includes identifying any shortfalls in provision and looking at opportunities for increased support, such as port levies or contributions.

The MNWB is also collaborating with PWCs around the country to encourage widescale adoption of a 'vision strategy' for their work. The concept was pioneered by the Tees PWC, which sought to integrate the work of all the seafarers' charities working on both sides of the Tees to ensure a comprehensive welfare service for visiting crews.

Spreading the word

Following a suggestion by members of the MNWB serving seafarers working group, the board held the inaugural UK port welfare conference in Southampton in September last year in a move to bring together all those who provide front-line welfare services to seafarers and fishing vessel crews in UK ports.

The 80-plus delegates not only included the heads of seafarer charities, PWC representatives, seafarer centre managers, port chaplains and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, but also volunteers from around the country. Items on the agenda included modern slavery, mental health and wellbeing, and understanding the culture of Chinese seafarers, as well as updates on MNWB projects.

The PWC concept is now being adopted by an increasing number of other countries, thanks to the International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network’s (ISWAN) international port welfare partnership programme (IPWP). A successful pilot project funded by the ITF Seafarers' Trust and ISWAN gained additional support from TK Foundation, Seafarers UK and MNWB, and the three-year IPWP programme started on 1 February 2017.

The programme has now helped to establish 31 new PWCs in specific ports around the world and has also seen PWCs formed in different ports using the IPWP concept. The most spectacular example of this is Australia, which started with a single PWC in Gladstone during a short visit by IPWP in the pilot phase (2015), and now has PWCs in 13 ports around the country.

'The MNWB is extremely proud of its PWC structure, which is the envy of other maritime states,' said chief executive Peter Tomlin. 'PWCs are unique, as they provide the only forum where organisations that make up the maritime community can meet to review, support and enhance seafarers' welfare in port.

'The industry is developing in such a way that the need for a more bespoke, interconnected and coordinated approach to seafarers' welfare is needed,' he pointed out. 'PWCs meet that need now, and over the next decade will become more important as the industry evolves.'