Fighting for the welfare of global seafarers

Jon Ingleton talks to Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of the World Maritime University, the IMO’s apex institution for maritime and ocean education

Fighting for the welfare of global seafarers
The World Maritime University’s mission is to be the world centre of excellence in postgraduate maritime and oceans education

Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry is troubled by seafarer issues that urgently need addressing: “The wellbeing of seafarers in its totality is currently at stake. The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated long-standing seafarer welfare challenges and has had a significant and disproportionate effect on seafarers on many fronts. In particular seafarer health, both mental and physical, has been severely compromised by a lack of global will and capacity to ensure that the needs of seafarers, recognised under international law, are met.”

Doumbia-Henry is president of the World Maritime University (WMU), whose mission is to be the world centre of excellence in postgraduate maritime and oceans education, professional training and research, while building global capacity and promoting sustainable development. WMU is working to provide education that supports seafarer wellbeing.

“Many countries still do not provide seafarers with medical care ashore; in some cases, it remains particularly difficult for them to even get access to medical supplies,” says Doumbia-Henry. “This is unacceptable, being counter to basic human rights as well as the letter and spirit of international legal instruments which many of these countries have ratified and are required to effectively implement in law and in practice. This mistreatment of seafarers needs to be strongly condemned by all and action taken to remedy the situation.

“In addition to this direct attack on their human rights with respect to health, seafarers have been denied the right to repatriation due to travel restrictions put in place by many countries. In some cases, this is dramatically compounded by seafarers having been onboard for periods in excess of terms going beyond what is provided for by the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, as revised.”

Under the MLC, these contractual periods must not exceed 11 months: “As a result, there is evidence that seafarers’ mental health is rapidly being compromised, particularly in a situation where it is natural to want to be with or near family and loved ones and that fatigue levels are rising significantly endangering shipping operations in general. These issues have to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

The economic crisis precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic is only aggravating these very serious issues and increasing the vulnerability of seafarers. “It is very disturbing to learn that many do not have access to any type of social protection scheme in the event that they lose their jobs. I have devoted many years of my life to addressing these issues, and I think it is time to enhance the social security coverage of our seafarers. The services of seafarers are indispensable to the wellbeing of the global community and particularly critical during this Covid-19 pandemic.

“As stated by the Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, the world must recognise seafarers as ‘key workers’ for the global supply chain. It is therefore important to recognise them as such and enable them to transit and transfer for repatriation or to join ships, enabling the smooth flow of maritime trade.”

Doumbia-Henry has been relieved to witness more effective activity and collaboration among industry stakeholders: “They have come together and exercised previously unseen pressure on states to relieve seafarers’ plight while looking for innovative solutions in order to provide smooth and safe repatriation mechanisms.”

But do challenges remain? “On the contrary, they are getting worse,” says Doumbia-Henry. “Efforts have to be intensified at all levels but, in particular, states have to intensify their actions relating to a recognition that seafarers are key workers, as articulated by the 2020 Day of the Seafarer theme. Similarly, industry stakeholders such as ship owners, managers and operators need to put the wellbeing of their own crew high on their agendas. Mental and psychological support and interventions are welcome, but the key point remains: seafarers need to go home after completion of their contractual terms at sea in accordance with international standards.”

Doumbia-Henry also calls for industry stakeholders to pay more attention to seafarers’ social protection: “The MLC addresses these matters with great care and provides for innovative solutions that seek to ensure that seafarers enjoy social security benefits in their country of residence. While many countries are still struggling to implement these provisions, industry stakeholders can give them a definitive push in this direction.”

One of the gaps WMU has identified is the need for short tailor-made education and training courses for personnel engaged in supporting seafarers in the broad maritime community. “WMU has therefore designed a fully-fledged online course to fill this gap and enhance the knowledge and skills of those working with seafarers,” says Doumbia-Henry.

“Thanks to the support of the ITF Seafarer’s Trust, we have designed the Professional Development Course in Maritime Welfare to train a broad spectrum of maritime organisations and individuals to address this important subject area of maritime welfare,” she says.

Covid-19 has seen more than 300,000 seafarers stranded around the world awaiting international flights for crew change-over: “The need for awareness on maritime welfare has grown in importance. Lectures on maritime welfare will be delivered by leading experts in the sector.” The course addresses issues over three modules. Doumbia-Henry explains: “The first module deals with international/inter-agency regulation and collaboration relating to seafarers, offering a clear overview of all the core international (non-)governmental organisations involved in producing, implementing and enforcing regulations that affect seafarers’ work. Along with Beatriz Vacotto, the Head of the Maritime Unit at International Labour Organization, I personally lecture on MLC 2006 in this module.”

The second module focuses on the psycho-social and occupational health issues relating to seafarers. “Issues such as fatigue, physical and mental health, and bullying and harassment are discussed from a medical and psychological perspective that provides core information to establish and develop supportive and preventative programmes onboard ships,” she says. The final module covers crew and resource management and land-based welfare relating to seafarers, and addresses the organisational aspects relating to occupational safety and health matters.

Educational systems and institutions can motivate positive change to ensure continuous improvement. Doumbia-Henry says: “They are key to progress. Societal change may be brought about through legal means and market forces. However, behavioural changes resulting from these are limited in that they are externally motivated. Education on the other hand, when properly designed and implemented, has the potential to birth and nurture intrinsic motivation which brings about sustainable changes in mindset and behaviour.”

“Educational systems and institutions foster critical thinking and innovative research equipping professionals with the tools to advance their knowledge and careers. Ideally, they should provide a trigger for continuous and lifelong learning and growth.”

Doumbia-Henry emphasises that “optimal education will make seafarers more aware and empowered with respect to their rights. It will also make the wider community aware of human rights as a whole, the intricate workings of the shipping industry and the role of seafarers in that context, the obligations of various stakeholders under international law, and the impact on the whole global community when vulnerable, but legitimate, stakeholders are marginalised.”

“The recognition of all this, and more, is why we at WMU, drawing from a rich research portfolio, keep innovating and optimising our educational offerings, in order to better serve the maritime and ocean communities and build institutional and individual capacity in those settings.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Jon Ingleton
By Jon Ingleton
22 October 2020

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