A school teacher once taught me a basic yet profound lesson: no matter how much money or global stature a country has, it cannot call itself ‘civilised’ unless it looks after all of its citizens - including those that do not have a voice. Applied to our industry, these parameters would require shipping to operate responsibly, particularly to its own workforce, and to continually work towards higher standards.
We can already see evidence that shipping is delivering on this commitment through the impending 2020 sulphur cap, and also adoption of Safety of Life at Sea convention (SOLAS) and the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention, (MLC).
To me, the MLC was a particularly important civilising influence as it can be seen as a moral compass to guide the ethics of operators who are physically removed from their crew - and are thus unable to hear their voices. Not only does the regulation determine working hours, food quality, healthcare and more, but it also tasks ship operators with insuring their crew in case of abandonment.
While the notion that an operator would insure their crew against bad behaviour from themselves seems contradictory, this is a genuine issue. According to the ILO, there have been 36 reported cases of seafarer abandonment in 2017. Although five of these have been disputed and 11 resolved, it is worth remembering that these are just the cases that have been reported and many other crew members may not have found enough support to pursue the matter.
It is to the International Transport Worker’s Federation’s (ITF’s) credit that the body is pushing ports and local authorities to take a hard line with ship owners that abandon crew. There has also been a rallying call from Human Rights at Sea for a “renewed and reinvigorated international efforts” to deliver quicker solutions to repatriate all stranded and abandoned seafarers and a greater focus on naming and shaming owners that otherwise seem to have an impunity for their actions.
Even the IMO has stepped in and in June, secretary general Kitack Lim, put seafarer abandonment firmly on the agenda. Pointing out that the industry has “a duty to protect seafarers, and we must not hide from it”, he berated ship owners that “find it cheaper and easier just to walk away” than fix the problem.
Personally, I feel that accountability will be the factor that drives greatest change and I support the idea - voiced to me by a number of people whom I’ve met at events - of a star system to rate employers in a manner similar to that used to evaluate the quality of hotels. Such systems are already in place in multiple work environments and would really benefit the industry as a whole as it would level the playing field between ethical and unscrupulous operators.
Furthermore, seafarers would be able to accurately assess the conditions that they will encounter at sea and ensure that family members who are dependent on their wages would not be left in the lurch. They would be able to give their best, safe in the knowledge that they would be rewarded for their efforts. This social contract, based on each side fulfilling their moral obligations to the other, is the foundation for a stable civilisation.