The Human Element

In an age of digital obsession, it is easy to forget the hidden people powering our industry. We spoke to Roger Harris of ISWAN on the importance of crew welfare and to see how his organisation is working to improve the lives of seafarers

In an age of digital disruption, the human element of business has been somewhat forgotten. Shipping is no different. With so much focus on AI, autonomous ships and IoT among other things, the role of the seafarer has been marginalised at a time when mental health issues at sea are on the rise and disputes over non-payment and abandonment are still an issue. 

While it paints a grey picture for the industry – especially when you consider how vital seafarers are to the global economy – numerous organisations are working to improve conditions for seafarers and to provide support and respite in periods of difficulty. 

One such organisation is the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) who provides a range of global welfare support programmes to seafarers. We spoke to their Executive Director, Roger Harris, about the vital work they’re carrying out.

“We run a 24-hour helpline for seafarers all over the world that is multi-lingual; we deal with 3,500 cases a year involving 8,000 to 10,000 seafarers and a whole range of issues”

What does ISWAN do?

We have two main roles. One is strategic, which is promoting seafarers’ welfare throughout the world, particularly in port. We have a programme called the International Port Welfare Partnership, which is about establishing port welfare committees in all the major ports throughout the world. 

The MLC talks about getting national welfare boards and port welfare boards established, and we are trying to promote that part of the MLC and bring all the major players in the port together to co-ordinate welfare in a port and to ensure that there is welfare support and facilities.

We also run a 24-hour helpline for seafarers all over the world that is multi-lingual; we deal with 3,500 cases a year involving 8,000 to 10,000 seafarers and a whole range of issues. We see many labour and contractual issues, as well as an increasing number of welfare cases.

There is a lot of focus on mental health in land-based jobs. Is that the case with shipping?

We are starting to see more issues around mental wellbeing to the extent that we have trained the SeafarerHelp team here to offer emotional support and also have one trained counselor. We have recognised that a lot of seafarers do not present with typical mental health issues, but once you talk to them about one issue, they start to talk about their mental wellbeing.

For example, what we see sometimes is that young cadets go to sea and do not realise how hard it is to be separated from friends and family. There’s an issue with some cadets who have had pressure placed on them by their family; often, the family will have taken out loans and made sacrifices to get the cadet through maritime school; the cadet then gets to sea and realises it is not quite the life for them. They sometimes cannot see a way out. There have been instances of suicides; 
it is a concern in the industry.

Right now, there is a debate going on about the rate of suicide in the industry. The problem is, no one organisation keeps a record of stats, so it is a grey area. There is work being done to get to the bottom of it and to find if it is a worse problem than we realise.

You also deal with victims of piracy, specifically those that have been held captive.

Yes, we also have a programme that deals with seafarers that have been victims of piracy, supporting them and their families. It involves mainly those who have been held hostage in Somalia, some of them for two and a half years. Most companies support seafarers, but some have walked away. We are still supporting some who have been affected by their time in captivity and who have not been able to go back to sea.

Through the piracy programme, we have built a network of psychiatrists, psychologists and psychosocial support, so we use those to help seafarers that have been involved in traumatic events. 

“For us, if a seafarer presents with mental health issues, the way in which they are offered support is vital”

Do many end up going back to sea?

Quite a few do. Sadly, there is still a lot of piracy going on and we will continue to support those seafarers that are held captive as best we can. For some, the decision about what to do once they are released is taken out of their hands. Once the ransom is paid, they are often sent back home straight away, so it is hard to support those cases and difficult to know what happens to them.

For those that have a choice, we try to help them find alternate livelihoods if they do not want to go back to sea. A lot of the time, the seafarers that go back to sea do so because that is the only life they have known, and the familiarity helps with their recovery. 

In South East Asia, it is still a relatively well-paid job, so most want to go back to sea. Oftentimes, they are supporting extended family, so there is a lot of pressure on them to get back to sea and support the family. With that additional pressure, it makes our work a lot more important.

What are the attitudes to mental health like within the shipping industry?

I think it is an issue, but things are changing in shipping. Generally, in society, there is more awareness about the importance of mental wellbeing, and I think that is influencing the shipping industry.

For example, the UK Chamber of Shipping along with RMT and Nautilus have produced some guidelines on raising awareness of mental wellbeing. It gives companies some pointers on what they should be doing and what they should be looking out for. The good companies want to do something and are not quite sure what to do. Some of the really big companies recognise they need to do something; and sometimes, they come to us.

Parts of the industry recognises this and are looking to see what they can do. For us, if a seafarer presents with mental health issues, the way in which they are offered support is vital. We have had cases of people on cruise ships presenting with depression who were taken off the ship at the next port and left there. And this is the thing about raising awareness and then dealing with it properly. 

Should the issue be forced a bit more? Where does the industry stand in that respect?

Yes, I think so. A number of companies are looking at this and wanting to do something. Of course, the companies are in the business to make money and the crew is one of the largest costs. And if the companies want to be competitive with other companies, then they need to take better care of their crews. There is awareness, certainly.

The regulatory side is important too, but the role of the companies is incredibly important too. If you invest in the health of the crews, then you have safer and more efficient vessels. The problem with the ILO and the IMO is that it takes a while to get things through and ratify everything, and we need action now. There is a role for organisations like ours to force the issues, but we are very much about working in partnerships and seeking practical solutions. Seafarers are an enormous part of the global economy and, to a degree, they are hidden. I think they are quite low down the food chain in that respect and they ought not to be due to the vital work that they carry out.