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Slow but steady progress in cargoship crew welfare

20 December 2018

Academics at the Seafarers International Research Centre have just finished crunching the numbers on their latest cargoship crew welfare survey, and their comparisons between onboard conditions in 2011 and 2016 make for interesting reading. ANDREW LININGTON reports...

Living and working conditions for many of the world's seafarers remain 'challenging', and the industry needs to do much more to improve key elements of life at sea if it is serious about tackling concerns over the mental health of crew, a new study has warned.

Some 75% of seafarers still serve on temporary contracts that cause financial instability, almost half have no pension contributions from their employers, and one in 10 say they are never able to go ashore, the research shows.

On the plus side, researchers found that average tours of duty have fallen significantly over the period, daily working hours have declined and overall levels of internet access have increased.

Produced by the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University, the report is based on feedback from two surveys of more than 1,500 seafarers carried out in 2011 and 2016. Only one-quarter of seafarers said they were employed on a permanent basis – and British seafarers were the only national group where the majority had permanent contracts.

In 2011, 55% of seafarers said they worked tours of duty of six months or longer – but in 2016 the proportion had fallen to just 34%. However, Chinese seafarers reported an increase in their tour lengths – with almost two-thirds working for six months or more at a time.

The study also found that seafarers got more leave in 2016 than they did five years earlier – with the average rising from 75.68 days a year to 86.29 days a year.

Around 47% of seafarers said their company did not pay pension contributions, 40% said the company did pay and 13% had no idea what their employer did about pensions.

The study found a decline in trade union membership levels among seafarers – from 40% in 2011 to 34% in 2016, and with a particularly marked fall among younger officers.

Seafarers reported a fall in the mean number of hours worked while in port – from 10.276 in 2011 to 9.755 in 2016. Average daily hours worked at sea also reduced, from 9.483 in 2011 to 9.164 in 2016. Almost three-quarters of seafarers still work seven days a week.

Contracts and communications have improved, but living conditions are much the same

The proportion of seafarers sharing cabins dropped from 14% to 10% over the five-year period and those with no access to private bathroom facilities onboard reduced from 24% to 21% in the same timescale.

Researchers said there had been little change in levels of satisfaction with cabin sizes, with just over one-quarter of crews saying they were not happy – and those serving on vessels built in South Korea significantly happier with cabin size than those on Japanese or Chinese-built ships.

In 2016, almost two-thirds of seafarers said they could control the temperature within their cabins, 57% said they could control electric light levels and 90% had access to natural light in their cabin. 'Natural light and a window is important to human health and wellbeing,' the report notes, 'and for one in 10 seafarers to lack access to natural light in their cabins is disturbing, particularly given that engineers and engine ratings spend most of their working time inside spaces that do not have access to natural light.'

Some 60% of seafarers say they are disturbed by noise in their cabins for some or all of the time – with the rates rising to 72% on the smallest ships and 73% on Chinese-built vessels.

The proportion complaining of being disturbed by vibration in their cabins fell from 63% in 2011 to 59% in 2016.

In 2016, 13% of seafarers said they were not able to get adequate rest very often or ever – down from 19% since 2011. But the numbers who described their rest as inadequate all of the time rose from 35% to 53% over the same period.

The report notes that well over 90% of seafarers said they were provided with standard personal protective equipment, such as safety shoes, coveralls, ear plugs and goggles. However, much lower levels of provision were reported for things like sun block, malaria tablets and mosquito repellent.

Pointing to research showing a rise in levels of psychological problems being suffered by seafarers, the report stresses the importance of recreational activities and calls for the issues to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

'Facilities which allow seafarers the opportunity for mental restoration are extremely limited onboard cargo ships when compared to workers ashore,' the report adds. 'This has consequences for the mental wellbeing of seafarers and deserves far greater attention from ship operators and regulators, as both an issue to the right to decent working and living conditions and as an issue of safety.'

Although levels of internet access have risen significantly over the five-year period, researchers found that almost half the seafarers with internet onboard are unhappy with connection speeds and only 44% had 'video chat' possibilities. 'These results are disappointing, as they reveal that even where internet connections are made available to seafarers these are of a limited nature and fall short of shore-based standards where video calls are now commonplace,' the report adds.

Email access also increased, but seafarers who were charged for email and internet services reported a substantial rise in hourly charges – from an average of US$4.792 in 2011 to $19.607 in 2016.

The vast majority of seafarers (97%) said they took their own mobile phone to sea with them – and the mean number of days per month that they were unable to get a signal rose from 15.23 days in 2011 to 17.51 in 2016.

Researchers said there appears to have been little change over the five-year period in the provision of equipment and facilities such as computer terminals, karaoke machines, and games. Two-thirds of seafarers in 2016 reported access to a gym onboard, 27% had access to a basketball court and 22% had swimming pools.

The report says that while there have been some very important improvements in areas such as contracts and communications, there has been much less progress in reducing the 'institutional nature' of living arrangements and recreational provision onboard.

'This is particularly serious given the concerns about seafarers' mental wellbeing that have been raised by industry bodies such as the UK P&I Club and also in the context of declining opportunities for shore leave whilst serving time at sea,' it concludes.

The Working and Living Conditions of Seafarers on Cargo Ships in the Period 2011-2016 is available to download free of charge from the SIRC website:


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