Steven Jones, the founder of the Seafarers Happiness Index, on how the wave of industrial action at quaysides around the world is keeping seafarers at sea.
Well done everyone, we survived covid. We faced down the challenges, threats, coughs and came out stronger. Yes, seafarers were locked down, they were forced to remain onboard for months (perhaps even years), and shore leave became synonymous with history, not the present or future. But no more surely?
Now it must be back to the good times and it’s over now? Seafarers must be getting back to some sense of normalcy, aren’t they? Well, alas maybe not. Once more it seems that the maritime industry appears to have been able to grasp human resources defeat from the jaws of victory. With seafarers once again stuck in the eye of the political storm.
What now, you may ask? What are seafarers experiencing which is a barrier to their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Just as the Seafarers Happiness Index responses have become less covidy, we now see other issues arise. One has been the staggering unwillingness of some owners (or perhaps just jobsworth immigration or port officials) to allow seafarers ashore. The other problems have been the impact of industrial actions ashore.
Yes, strikes! That is the answer. A spate of port strikes globally, and problems with labour relations, has seemingly dented the route to positive new normal. Crews have once more caught up as pawns in a game of chess, though this time one where nothing moves.
We have heard on numerous occasions how port strikes can have a significant impact on seafarers’ ability to go ashore. How there have been delays in getting into port, and an impact on travel plans and crew changes, longer trips as vessels stack up and delay entry. Even where ships do come alongside, the fact that no one will go near them or touch them. Left floundering on the quay, unsure of what will happen next. Yet more uncertainty, just as some sense of positive status quo was returning.
There have been port strikes in the UK. There have been Finnish port strikes, which have thankfully, ahem, finished. There have been French strikes over pensions, and while much attention has been focused on European and North American disputes, the wave of port strikes has been spreading to the southern hemisphere, South Africa, Chile and Australia in particular.
As an illustration of the scale of the impact when ports in South Africa were shut by strikes, Durban, Cape Town and Coega saw vessel calls down by almost 60%. It is not even an actual strike, sometimes just the ripples of a rumoured lockout can cause chaos.
Obviously during a port strike, the port may be closed to vessel traffic, including crew transfers. Or it may mean the gates are locked, etc, or there can even be threats of violence against anyone seen doing anything other than staying hunkered down.
All of which means seafarers may not be able to disembark from their vessel to go ashore and access essential services, such as vital medical care or rest and relaxation facilities.
As we have heard so often from seafarers, shore leave remains a vital tool in the fight against stress, fatigue, mental health issues and is just an all-round good thing to be able to do. While there was acceptance during the pandemic that going for a stroll or hitting the mall wasn’t the best idea, now we are hearing that seafarers are once more onboard for extended periods and this is particularly frustrating and disappointing.
The feelings of isolation, stress, fatigue and frustration are there regardless of the whys and wherefores of shore leave bans. It seems obvious that many, if not all strikes are driven by realistic needs and calls for change at a very difficult social time. So, this is not a case of bemoaning legal labour actions – merely just a reminder that for every strike action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and an impact onboard the ships the ports serve.
So, it remains that the impact on seafarer movement and freedoms do need to be considered, and that port authorities and stakeholders should develop contingency plans to minimise the impact on seafarers when strikes do occur.
This could involve providing alternative crew transfer options, ensuring access to essential services, and keeping seafarers informed about the status of the port and any potential disruptions. Working with welfare organisations such as the Mission to Seafarers to ensure links to seafarers centres, and the like.
There is much to be done to make things better for crews, to make sure that seafarers are not once more collateral damage, but it takes awareness, empathy and a desire to engage. Which is not so easy after all.