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Physical and mental wellbeing for seafarers should be top priority for shipowners

30 March 2021

Good mental health policies promote productivity and therefore profitability. What is the shipping industry waiting for, asks Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson

At the end of last year, Nautilus conducted a survey to gauge the impact of the coronavirus crew change crisis, which revealed not surprisingly that around 50% of members were reconsidering their career at sea because of the way they had been treated. At the same time, a report from the World Maritime University (WMU) found that underreporting and lack of enforcement of hours of work was endemic and resulting in exhaustion for seafarers.

Not only do these two issues raise serious concerns about the physical health of seafarers, they are having an increasing effect on the mental wellbeing of those working at sea.

I recently joined with colleagues from the WMU, the ITF Seafarers' Trust and the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency to talk about the WMU report, and what can be done to ensure it does not gather dust on the shelf but acts as a driver for change and an end to the culture of adjustment the report highlighted and the long hours culture in shipping.

The world cannot continue to ignore seafarers and expect them to work ever longer and harder. Industry, unions, and governments must come together for an in-depth look at the sector and how it functions at all levels.

It is not simply the lack of enforcement of hours of work regulations that needs to change, but the reasons behind it – that seafarers are working far more hours onboard than the legislation allows, than is safe for individuals or safe for all those working at sea. Seafarers' mental and physical wellbeing needs to be a priority.

Progress on mental health awareness for seafarers is coming. This month Nautilus signed a mental health pledge launched by industry body Maritime UK. It commits the Union to improving the quality of mental health and wellbeing provision for both those who work for us and those we represent.

We are also launching a new mental health app for Union members and our staff, in partnership with Endsleigh Insurance and Health Assured.

This month sees the launch of practical guidelines for shipping companies on improving mental wellbeing, which we have developed alongside sister unions and the UK Chamber of Shipping.

Most episodes of mental ill health are short lived. Early interventions, along with a holistic company-wide approach to wellbeing, can negate more serious long-term problems, as well as create a positive working environment for all.

Leading a cross-border trade union organisation, I am always interested in what part culture plays in our approaches to work-life balance, and it should be no surprise to anyone that across the Union our approaches are very similar.

The Netherlands is arguably ahead of the UK in facing up to the challenges of mental health for seafarers. My colleagues in our Rotterdam office ran a series of workshops in 2019 under the theme of 'Mental fitness pays off', where a strategy to mainstream mental health and encourage positive action from shipowners was discussed.

The overriding outcome of that initiative was being able to demonstrate to shipping companies that good mental health policies are a 'win-win' situation. Productivity increases and therefore so does profitability, alongside the reputational benefits from being a forward-thinking organisation.

This is the message I want everybody to embrace. It is good to talk about mental health and it is good to act on improving mental health. We need our members to understand the damage done by working excessive hours and how the institutional failure to record hours of work and rest allows a long hours culture to be normalised. We need employers to recognise the benefits of looking after the mental and physical health of their seafarers – their greatest assets – and we need the public and legislators to understand the role of seafarers in global supply chains and the need to invest in them and respect their fundamental rights to decent work and a safe working environment.

It is good to talk about mental health and it is good to act on improving mental health Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson
From the general secretary January 2021

As we start the new year, it feels like there is a new hope in the air that was missing for much of 2020, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson.

The news of various Covid-19 vaccines is positive, and many countries have designated seafarers and other transportation workers as key workers – our goal now is to ensure they receive prompt access to rapid testing and vaccines to reflect that status. Statements from the European Commission, the UN General Assembly and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Governing Body will certainly help our case.

Many countries are starting to incorporate testing in airports so that people can travel, and pressure from the UN, ILO, International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Commission and stakeholder groups like the UN Global Compact is beginning to have an impact as the number of crew changes taking place increases. Meanwhile reports that some charterers continue to refuse voyage deviations to facilitate crew changes is unwelcome news and shows them up for rowing against the tide of public opinion which clearly supports seafarers' rights to repatriation.

The impact of pressure from the Union should not be underestimated in this regard. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that the work of maritime and shipping professionals does not go unnoticed, in the hope that our members can finally be recognised for the vital role they play in our globalised world.

Our Crew Change for Christmas campaign brought renewed attention to maritime and shipping professionals, with a large number of leading industry and political figures lending their voices to the call for seafarers, who have worked beyond their contracts, to be allowed home for the holiday season.

Thank you to those who added your voice to the many activities that took place. Our membership survey showed that over 90% of our members have been impacted by Covid-19. It is clear there will  be long-term effects on the shipping industry including the likelihood of a future recruitment crisis. Rest assured that we will be raising these issues at the highest levels.

Now we must move forward, both as a union and as a profession. Last year at this time I spoke of the Union's 2030 Vision, adopted at the general meeting in 2019, being our blueprint for the future. The vision sees the many challenges we face as opportunities to keep our organisation at the cutting edge, responding to globalisation and automation challenges with new services and benefits for our members delivered through extended networks and based on partnership, cooperation and collaboration.

That work was impacted by the pandemic, but it has not gone away. We have adapted and added even more ideas to our plans for modernising and refreshing our membership offer. We remain focused on developing new ways of working, new ways of organising, new ways of campaigning, and new ways of servicing that demonstrate our continued relevance and commitment to our members now and in the future.

Our use of technology has increased exponentially in the last twelve months and the number of members who have been able to join online meetings who would ordinarily have missed out, shows that we need to incorporate these new ways of engagement as permanent changes.

Our members have been able to contact us and interact with us much more, and shipping companies are much more alive to the need for good communications facilities onboard. There is work still to be done but the case is strong, and we now know technology can be utilised effectively.

We will be reaching out to our younger members in the coming months to ensure that their views for a union they want to be a part of in the next twenty to thirty years are front and centre of our plans, as well as looking at new benefits or services which may bring more maritime and shipping professionals into membership.

We look to the new year with renewed optimism and intend to build on the lessons we have learnt over the last year. We will work every day to ensure that our union, our members and the global maritime industry emerges stronger and fit for the future.

Happy New Year! Gelukkig nieuwjaar! Frohes neues Jahr!

From the general secretary February 2021

As a post-pandemic world edges closer, we renew our efforts for members, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson.

We are only a month into the new year, and it is starting to look and feel very familiar. We must be careful not to let ourselves become overwhelmed by the ongoing coronavirus crisis, or indeed be complacent about its impact. It is clear, the public health guidelines must be complied with if we are ever to beat the virus and get back to anything approaching normality.

The bad news is the Union's offices are closed again but our tremendous staff are in full work from home mode. Our frontline welfare staff – mainly those at Mariners’ Park, continue to support our residents and those we care for. It was fantastic news that Jane Davies, our development manager at Nautilus, was recognised for her welfare work during the pandemic by the Merchant Navy Welfare Board at its annual welfare awards.

We are seeing new restrictions being placed on international travel and new checks and requirements at borders, none of which will come as good news to the hundreds of thousands of seafarers caught up by the global crew change crisis.

Far too many seafarers haven't been repatriated since the first wave of the virus struck and are now facing their second full year on their ships. For many others they are now beginning contracts unsure when they will return home again. Many seafarers are now working on much-reduced terms and conditions in order to preserve their jobs. Some seafarers work on vessels whose charterers have insisted on clauses which actively discourage crew changes.

This is the reality for our members too and it requires a strong union, united to defend members' interests, to ensure that short-term measures do not become permanent erosions of their pay and conditions. I remain very concerned about the longer-term consequences of the pandemic and the way seafarers have been treated.

More positively, we welcome the news that more and more vaccines are becoming available and we are working to ensure that, as key workers, seafarers are prioritised once those at immediate risk have been vaccinated.

There are immense logistical issues around vaccinating seafarers here and abroad especially with the need for two doses several weeks apart and the compatibility of different vaccines. The industry is working on these issues and the unions are engaged but we will need government support and commitment.

Another factor impacting on our industry is of course Brexit. Now that the UK has left the EU, the recently concluded Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) has added to the already difficult circumstances as ports and supply chains organise new ways of doing business to cope with increased border checks and inevitable paperwork and bureaucracy. This is hopefully a short-term issue and soon trade will flow as new systems cope with the avalanche of additional paperwork.

When the EU-UK TCA was signed, we extended a cautious welcome as the alternative of emerging from the transition with no deal was too horrific to contemplate, especially for an industry at the centre of 95% of all UK trade.

However, as one government official said in a Brexit preparation meeting we attended in January: 'We should think of this as the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end'.

There is still much to be organised and agreed as part of the TCA, the future mutual recognition of professional qualifications – including the Certificate of Competency (CoC). Nearly 4,000 UK CoC holders work on vessels registered in EU member states such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Malta and Cyprus. Securing the necessary endorsements for third country nationals is challenging but we are working hard to ensure that it is addressed and that transitioning to the new arrangements is as smooth as possible.

We continue to work on support for members facing financial hardship due to Covid-19 restrictions. We are campaigning for government clarity over UK Seafarers Earnings Deduction status. Please remember that any member suffering financial hardship should contact the Seafarers’ Advice & Information Line (SAIL).

As we face another year of uncertainty, my advice to members remains the same – please stay safe; try to look after your mental and physical health as well as you can; and contact us if you need help. Wherever you are, so are we.

From the general secretary March 2021

Maritime employers must deliver on their commitment to provide a decent pension for seafarers, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson.

With the world feeling so much in flux, it is sometimes hard to focus on long-term decisions, but thinking about your retirement mustn't wait until it's too late.

At Nautilus we work in many ways to ensure that all our members have access to a decent pension. But our members often work for employers who have no interest in securing a decent retirement for their seafarers and only want to do the minimum or nothing at all.

Of course, many of our members work for employers abroad and must make their own provisions for retirement.

Many governments seem to believe that their citizens should work for longer and longer so they can move the state pension age further and further away. There is no doubt that we are all living longer but maritime professionals do a tough job and should be able to retire at a reasonable age. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognised this with the adoption of Convention no. 71 on seafarers' pensions. Dating back to 1946, it includes provisions for seafarers to be able to retire from the age of 55! Sadly it is not widely ratified.

In the UK, auto enrolment has meant that pensions are more and more the responsibility of the employer with less reliance on the state pension, which is far from generous. Despite a decent pension being a vital element of a fair workplace, too many employers treat them as a regulatory hurdle, offering only the minimum legal requirements and not considering their responsibilities for their employees' financial security, not least beyond the time they stop working.

In the Netherlands, our members are protected by more generous state provision supplemented by industry-wide pension schemes covering the merchant navy, dredging, and inland navigation. In 2019 we joined unions across the country to fight the government's attempts to increase the retirement age.

I was recently asked to present to the Merchant Navy Pensions Employers Group and I called on employers to support the industry-wide retirement scheme – the Ensign Retirement Plan ('Ensign') – and to fully commit to its longer term success.

Ensign is a well-run, quality pension scheme. It provides long-term retirement solutions for maritime professionals beyond the time they stop work. This is important given the pension flexibilities the UK government has introduced.
Pension funds are heavily regulated, and the costs associated with running a pension scheme for sea and shore staff are high. Ensign is a cost-effective solution.

Why don't those employers work with the rest of the maritime industry to support one pension scheme and let the specialists take on the administration?

Nautilus membership surveys show that seafarers place a good pension scheme as one of the top three benefits they look for. If companies want to attract and retain the best seafarers, they must look at their long-term retirement needs. And these needs can be best provided for by Ensign.

Regrettably too many in the shipping industry have shown nothing but contempt for the goal of ensuring decent pensions for our members for the future.

What better way to reward and motivate our most valuable asset – maritime and shipping professionals – than to commit to the provision of decent incomes in retirement?

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