Crew change key to seafarer happiness, index finds

Seafarer charity ISWAN believes that harassment is under reported in shipping. Credit: Getty Images
COVID-19 has impacted crew happiness levels. Credit: Getty Images

The lack of crew changes carried out globally appears to be reaching a breaking point for crew onboard, according to the index which is carried out by the charity Mission to Seafarers and published on 29 July.

Overall seafarer satisfaction has decreased onboard from 6.30 out of 10 for Q1 2020, to 6.18 for Q2 2020, the Seafarer Happiness Index found. The impacts of COVID-19 travel restrictions are to blame for this change, the survey indicates.

“The second quarter of 2020 reflects the responses from crew members globally against the backdrop of a global crew change crisis precipitated by COVID-19,” stated the report.

The index showed a decrease in satisfaction in all subject areas, including; training; workload; access to shore leave; connectivity with families; food onboard, and access to welfare facilities ashore.

Other areas that showed a decrease in happiness in the index, including the ability to exercise, have also been highlighted in commentary seafarers provided directly to SAS last month. A chief officer onboard a bulk carrier told SAS how the levels of fatigue were high onboard, as without any clear prospect of crew change, he had given up going to the gym. “I am simply tired, and the level of my fatigue is already high. I already gave up a month ago going to the gym. If you see the light in the tunnel then you know where you are going you have a target, but now there are plenty of people stuck at sea without any target,” he said. The index showed that seafarers reported a decrease in happiness regarding the ability to stay fit and healthy on board from 6.50/10 to 6.35.

Interaction with other crew members has been impacted by the lack of crew change, as seafarers are experiencing prolonged periods of time onboard and in close quarters. The index showed a decrease from 7.13/10 to 7.04 and reported how interactions between the different nationalities of seafarers onboard were strained due to the distinct ways they handled social distancing. One seafarer reported similar issues to SAS of his experience as one of the only of his nationality onboard and how that exacerbated his feelings of isolation.

The only subject area surveyed that showed an increase in satisfaction was salary and wages, from 6.11 out of 10 in Q1 to 6.28 in Q2 2020. This seems to be the only associated benefit of the travel restrictions as extended contracts has meant an extended injection of cash to seafarers stuck onboard. However, those awaiting to join vessels, and their families, have had to rely on charities and associated emergency funds for support in this time. In the UK several charities have launched emergency funds to help seafarers and their families who have been financially impacted by the crew change restrictions. Seafarers UK launched a USD2.5 million fund and the International Transport Workers’ Federation Seafarer’s Trust made available welfare services and USD1.2 million for grants. “Most of our contracts are like on-hire off-hire yes, so we are only earning when we are at sea, so I can only imagine that there is plenty of tragedies at shore nowadays. The people simply have no money to live for and that’s the problem,” said a seafarer to SAS.

Frank Coles, CEO Wallem Group, and an associate of the study, told SAS he was surprised the results weren’t a lot worse. He stated that he is amazed by the resilience of seafarers that has kept this industry going, though it has somewhat been abused by its stakeholders. “The mental health situation is desperate, and the stories of desperation grow every day.  It is imperative that seafarers are given engagement calls, contact with their families and the ability to talk about their feelings,” Coles told SAS. “The uncertainty of the current situation exacerbates the stress of those over contract.  Healthy eating and exercise are also very critical in this situation”.

Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, spoke to SAS detailing how crew changes are slowly happening but are lagging far behind the current need. “InterManager estimates that presently whole shipping industry is carrying 35-40% of needed crew repatriations,” said Szymanski. “What we are missing now is …fairness in approach. Many countries are very happy to reap the benefits of seafarers hard work – receiving medicine, fuel, raw material absolutely necessary for their functioning but are completely forgetting to reciprocate kindness and support required by those who bring all these goods to our door steps”.