Navigating Change

“Navigating change” is one of the articles collected in the book Advancing Change: inspirational stories from a decade of giving, created on the occasion of the Trafigura Foundation’s 10th anniversary. Shipping is the beating heart of world trade. But for the seafarers at the sharp end it can be a tough livelihood. Roger Harris, of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), explains how the network is helping to make a difference.

As you read this, as many as 80,000 merchant ships, crewed by 1.5 million seafarers of myriad nationalities, are crisscrossing our oceans. Some will be journeying for the best part of a year. But how much do most of us really know about the lives of these maritime workers whose livelihoods take them thousands of nautical miles out to sea, and on whom over 90 per cent of the planet’s trade depends?

The world of seafarers is a hidden one,” says Roger Harris, Executive Director of ISWAN. “As the saying goes: ‘Without shipping half the planet would starve and the other half would freeze.’ But the truth is, most people don’t give the industry a second thought.” For those who do, the realities make for sober reading.

The challenges faced by professional seafarers encompass anything from social isolation to unpaid wages, sexual harassment, repatriation issues and – the one that does make headlines – piracy. The result of a merger between the International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare (ICSW) and the International Seafarers’ Assistance Network (ISAN), UK-based ISWAN works to tackle these issues by promoting seafarers’ welfare worldwide through advocacy, advice and funding.

Vital services include a toll-free, 24-hour, multilingual helpline, SeafarerHelp, as well as emergency welfare funds for seafarers who run into unexpected difficulties. Since 2017, ISWAN has been supported by the Trafigura Foundation, which chose it as a charita ble partner because of its focus on Clean and Safe Supply Chains. Among the initiatives supported by the Trafigura Foundation is the Seafarers’ Emergency Fund (SEF), which provides financial support to meet needs such as repatriation, and to help seafarers and their families.

(c) Darren Philip Mozo

The majority of seafarers are effectively freelancers whose contracts last only for the duration of each journey. Many originate from so-called “labour supply” countries such as India, the Philippines and post-Soviet states such as Russia and Ukraine. And while the global shipping industry is regulated by the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), in reality many seafarers find themselves vulnerable to contractual breaches. This could be down to their employer’s country of origin not being an MLC signatory; or, simply, unscrupulous business practice. Uniquely international, the industry is fiendishly complicated to police.

The Seafarers’ Emergency Fund is a fund of last resort for when an individual is in a really dire situation,” says Harris. “It could be an unforeseen circumstance like accident or illness. Or it could be that a seafarer has been abandoned when their company goes bankrupt. In such instances they might find themselves stuck on a ship, thousands of miles from home, with no food, water or support, or any means of getting back to their families. Or it may be a case of a company simply withholding wages. And in many instances, especially in the developing world, it is not just immediate family that relies on a seafarer’s income, but an extended family too.

Harris highlights the case of a Georgian ship captain who was owed more than USD 11,000 in wages and who fell ill and died on his return home. As a result, the man’s wife and daughter suffered extreme financial hardship. Threatened with eviction, and with her husband’s wages still withheld, the captain’s widow sought help from the Georgian Seafarers’ Union, which applied to the SEF for a grant to cover the mortgage. “The application was approved,” says Harris, “and, mercifully, the family was able to stay in their home.

In addition to employment issues, seafarers whose journeys take them through the Horn of Africa run the gauntlet of piracy. And while incidents have declined in recent years, Harris fears that today’s geopolitical climate threatens to place seafarers back in harm’s way.

The presence of NATO warships in the area had started to deter pirates. But those navies have shifted their focus away from piracy and towards the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the situations in Yemen and Iran.

Meanwhile, commercial pressures are forcing merchant ships to retire armed guards and sail vessels closer to Somalia in order to save on fuel costs. “The pirates haven’t gone away, though,” says Harris. “Some just moved into less risky activities such as peo ple smuggling. The whole thing could erupt again at any moment.” ISWAN’s Piracy Survivors Family Fund, also supported by the Trafigura Foundation, offers vital assistance during and after seafarers’ captivity by providing livelihood and living expenses to their families, as well as mental and physical rehabilitation. The fund currently provides ongoing support to seafarers held hostage by pirates, some of whom endured their situation for more than four years.

A number of those seafarers have gone back to sea, but we are helping those who couldn’t,” says Harris. As these cases illustrate, the challenges faced by maritime workers are uniquely complex, and it can be difficult for the industry and regulatory bodies to gain a comprehensive overview due to a dearth of data. Harris hopes that ISWAN’s new Customer Relationship Management software, funded by the Trafigura Foundation, will help flag issues that may be falling under the radar.

(c) Zay Yar Lin

Currently, it takes a lot of time to interrogate and analyse the data collected through the helpline. With this new system we benefit from faster reporting and deeper analysis, enabling us to identify trends and issues. It will permit us to not only deliver our own services more efficiently, but also share anonymised data to help the industry tackle some of the problems experienced by the seafaring community.

The calls that come through during our interview in the organisation’s South London office offer a real-time snapshot of those problems. Manned by a multilingual team (English, Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic and Tagalog are all spoken), the helpline is alight with anxious enquiries. One Filipino sailor calls to express concerns about being asked by his employer to carry out hazardous work for which he is not qualified. The ISWAN team member who fields the call advises the sailor on his options, which include reporting the situation anonymously to the relevant port authority.

Another caller appears to be suffering from psychosomatic symptoms connected to homesickness. He is offered both empathetic words and practical advice. Loneliness and feelings of isolation, say the call handlers, are a recurring theme and are symptomatic of two separate, but related, issues. On the one hand, many ships have limited or non-existent internet access, meaning seafarers are unable to check in with their families; on the other, over-reliance on social media can, paradoxically, lead to social isolation.

Seafarers aren’t interacting with one another because they are going back to their ca bins to be on Skype or Facebook,” explains Harris. “They aren’t cultivating team bonding. You might be living on this ship for eight to nine months and if you have a bad day, there’s no getting away from it. On a ship, support from your co-workers is vital.

(c) Chan Min Thet

Indeed, anecdotally at least, suggests Harris, poor mental health is on the rise in the sh ipping industry. “One insurer that provides coverage for ships and their crews claims that out of the mental health cases reported to it over the last couple of years, rates of suicide have tripled.” ISWAN call handlers, who act as advisers and counsellors, receive training from specialist organisations such as the Samaritans, and from professional psychologists.

In future, says Harris, the organisation, supported by the Trafigura Foundation, plans to embed health and wellbeing – including mental and emotional – even more firmly into its offering. Against a backdrop of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the two organisations are also tackling another key – and highly topical – issue: gender inequality.

Only two per cent of seafarers are women,” says Harris. “The culture within the shipping industry is very male dominated and there are instances of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse. We are exploring how we can address that, coordinating strategically with governments and partners to promote more welfare services and facilities, especially in the more patriarchal societies, such as South Asia and the Philippines. With the Trafigura Foundation we are now expanding that type of regional work.

It is this focus on ISWAN’s strategic aims, says Harris, which distinguishes the Trafigura Foundation from other funders. “They are very actively involved, which is great. They are engaged and approachable and are really interested in developing ideas and projects. We received our funding last November, but now with the Foundation we are implementing a more strategic partnership.

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