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We need a grown-up conversation about shipping's hidden heroes

Seafarer mental health issues have risen to the top of the agenda during the pandemic. The industry must now ensure it doesn’t sleepwalk into the next crisis with mental health problems unresolved

Shipping’s can-do attitude has kept the world turning over the past year, but seafarers have suffered. Recruitment could suffer as a result

“ONE of our ships was asked to take a seafarer from a vessel 15 miles ahead so we could take him to shore,” Capt Rajesh Unni, chief executive of ship manager Synergy Group, told a webinar discussion.

“It was a mental health issue.”

Speaking at the same event, Ardmore Shipping executive vice-president Mark Cameron expressed how “incredibly frustrating it is to have a ship sitting off a port for several weeks with arrangements in place to disembark crew, only to find the ship is ordered to another port”.

Shipmanagers agree the crewing crisis peaked in the first half of 2020. For three months, every vessel owning, operating, and managing company struggled to fund ways to handle a crisis that blindsided a fragmented and siloed industry.

To its credit, the experience showed the value of collaboration, pragmatism, and going beyond contractual agreements.

While the crisis is not yet over and pressure on seafarers and shore teams remain, shipping should give itself a pat on the back, speakers said.

However, sooner or later, industry leaders will need to sit together to work out why this humanitarian crisis happened and what can be done to stop a repeat.

Roger Harris, executive director of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, said seafarers have “hidden lives”.

Neither the public nor governments know much about seafarers, so there would be little point forcing their hand to ‘stop shipping to stop shopping’. Too many commercial interests would be hurt in the process.

Nevertheless, what Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson described as an “adult conversation” needs to be had.

That conversation should recognise the damage done to seafarer mental health and the successes achieved, the looming concern over vaccine nationalism as it affects seafarers — what happens if the Sinovac vaccine given to Chinese seafarers is not accepted by certain countries’ health regimes? — and the impact the pandemic has had on recruitment of younger men and women and on retirement attitudes of older seafarers.

These are intensely practical questions that affect lives and livelihoods, although Anglo-Eastern chief executive Bjorn Højgaard cautioned about “the victimisation of seafarers,” adding that it was dangerous to wrap them in cotton wool.

It’s not the first time shipping’s ‘can-do’ attitude has been used against the industry.

We always find a way to get the job done, and global commerce knows instinctively that — crisis or no crisis — the goods will get through. But by its success, shipping has set itself up for failure — or at least to make life hard for seafarers.

At the end of the day, said Mark Cameron, “we have called up 10 years’ of building trust with ships’ crews… While seafarers respect what has been done to get them home, they are disappointed by what has been achieved.”

That adult conversation is incredibly important because it will focus minds on shipping leaders’ attitude to seafarers, their mental wellbeing, their career prospects, their training and development.

Lessons were learnt during the coronavirus pandemic that will set the industry up for many years to come — certainly to 2030, perhaps even to 2050.

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