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As the rise in reports of seafarer hardship – including financial difficulties, abuse, and the impact of working in warzones – shows, the maritime sector has a way to go to address these challenges. But Nautilus members are reminded that help is at hand in the form of their Union, writes Deborah McPherson
Global challenges: cost of living, war, piracy
Life remains extremely challenging for seafarers despite the exceptional stresses experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic having eased, according to the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) annual review.
During 2022-2023, ISWAN assisted a total of 8,602 seafarers and family members of 98 nationalities (up from 90 in the previous year).
The ISWAN review, which covers the charity's activities from 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023, shows its helplines experienced a 6% caseload increase on the previous year. The data relates to all the helplines operated by ISWAN – such as SeafarerHelp and Yacht Crew Help, as well as its 19 commissioned helplines, including the Nautilus 24/7 service for members.
One of the main concerns of seafarers contacting SeafarerHelp over the past year is financial difficulties, with contacts via calls and messages more than doubling compared to 2021-2022.
The impact of working in areas affected by war or piracy attacks was also telling. Contacts relating to working in a warzone increased thirty-fold on 2021-2022 as ISWAN supported seafarers impacted by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, primarily through grants programmes administered by the charity such as the Ukraine Crisis Support Fund.
Abuse and bullying on the rise
Another concerning set of issues continuing to be reported by seafarers across ISWAN's helplines in 2022-2023 was abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence (ABHDV). While the maritime sector has taken steps in recent years to acknowledge and begin to address these issues at sea, the charity's recent data shows that there is still some way to go to ensure that the sector provides a safe and inclusive environment for all seafarers.
ISWAN's own SeafarerHelp service saw a 13% increase in the number of contacts relating to these issues compared to the previous financial year. ISWAN's recent quarterly helpline data (Q3 2023) also reveals further increases in reports of ABHDV against seafarers as a key trend across its helpline services. Between July and September 2023, nearly 70% of seafarers who turned to ISWAN's helplines for support reported experiencing verbal abuse or bullying. In some cases, this included discrimination on the basis of the seafarer's nationality or sexuality. In 16% of cases the seafarer was sexually assaulted or harassed, whilst 12% of cases involved physical assault.
Yacht crew culture
Yacht crew, especially female crew, continue to be disproportionately represented. The proportion of contacts relating to ABHDV on ISWAN's Yacht Crew Help helpline was even higher than its counterpart SeafarerHelp, accounting for 16% of all issues raised by yacht crew in 2022-2023 (compared to 2% of all issues raised to SeafarerHelp). ISWAN's data indicates that women seafarers are disproportionately affected by these issues.
Psychological health problems were the top issue raised by yacht crew. They frequently spoke about the impact on their mental health of long working hours, lack of sleep, alcohol or drugs onboard, or difficulty fitting into the crew culture. Contractual issues also accounted for a high proportion of contacts to Yacht Crew Help, with enquiries relating to unpaid wages accounting for 11% of all issues raised.
Psychological health problems including stress and anxiety were also prominent issues raised by seafarers in general in 2022-2023, says ISWAN.
Many of the issues touched on in ISWAN's data mirror those reported on at Nautilus International's General Meeting 2023 in terms of the pandemic, the impact on members of the cost of living crisis, and its vital work supporting yacht crew by clawing back money owed. Member input on these issues is informing the Union's campaigning strategies and support for members.
Find out more
- download the ISWAN 2022-23 Annual Review
- ISWAN also published a graphical overview from its Q3 2023 helpline data to provide insights and inform future work – download insights here.