Is there a Future for Seafarer Centres?

December 16, 2015
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Roger Harris, Executive Director of ISWAN, looks at the future of seafarer centres and provides some thoughts about how they can survive and thrive.

Seafarer centres have been around for a long time. There are now approximately 430 seafarer centres around the world, run mainly by the Christian seafarer missions and a small number are run by trade unions, governments, and NGOs. There is a view that the future of centres is limited because of increasing access to the Internet at sea, short turnaround times, restricted shore leave, lack of funding, and doubts about who will staff them in the future. It is timely, therefore, to look at whether there is future for centres, and to think about the welfare services being provided to seafarers in different ways.

Like many other sectors of the world economy, the maritime industry is experiencing fast technological change. With the next generation of High Throughput Satellites, ships are becoming more connected and automated. Drone ships are being talked about more and more, although this is some way off. However, increasing automation may mean fewer but more highly trained seafarers. There is already closer monitoring of ships' operations by shore-side staff with some operational decisions being taken away from ships' masters and crews.

Another new development is the increasing access to credit cards for seafarers. How will this affect seafarers' welfare? Will the crew need to come ashore to top up their mobile phones or buy data? Will they need to come ashore to buy goods, or will they do this online – just as we do?

There is now increased access to the Internet at sea for seafarers. According to the recent Crew Connectivity survey, 58% of seafarers now have some form of access while at sea.
More and more Wi-Fi is being installed on ships that seafarers can access in either their cabins or common mess areas. We all know that access to the Internet for communicating back home is the number one concern of seafarers.

A new game changer is the growing use of smartphones by seafarers. The Crew Connectivity survey 2015 found that 77% of crew now take smartphones on board. It has taken over from the laptop as the most popular communication device for seafarers. They are now able to use smartphones for web browsing, banking, Skype, and connection to other apps. Mobile data packages for smartphones are becoming cheaper. The increasing use of smartphones may be the biggest threat to the continued existence of seafarer centres because seafarers are able to shop and communicate on them cheaply and without the need to go to the traditional centres.

It is expensive to run seafarer centres: costs for staff, rent, and utilities must be covered. Many centres have seen their income generation from bars and sales of phone cards decline. There is an uphill struggle to bring in other funds to keep the centres going. There is keen competition for a limited amount of funding from a small number of grant giving foundations. What compounds this is the reluctance of funders to pay for running costs. They would often prefer to pay for capital, or specific projects. Seafarer Centres also have to compete with other more popular causes when raising funds from the general public. With ports often cut off from local communities, many people do not feel the need to donate to facilities for visiting seafarers.

Another key issue for the future of centres is staffing. Around the world, particularly in North America, the age profile of welfare workers and chaplains is increasingly older. There is a serious concern about where the new generation of welfare workers are going to come from. There is a drive to the 'professionalise' seafarers' welfare with pressure coming from funders and also from ports. This is a positive development but it does present the sector with a number of challenges in recruiting new people and developing a career path.

Another issue is the recruitment and retention of volunteers. There is a major challenge of how to recruit and keep volunteers, especially young people who now have different priorities and expectations. This is a big problem in countries around the world where there is little tradition of volunteering such as in Brazil or Ukraine. In these countries, seafarer centres have to rely mainly on paid staff and this incurs major costs. In contrast, in North America and Western Europe the sector relies heavily on volunteers.

Despite the problems and challenges, there is some good news. Around the world, there are centres that are thriving and have a bright future. In Boston, USA, the New England Seafarers' Mission is raising funds by charging seafarers small amounts to receive their packages from online shopping. They plan to bring in over $20,000 each year from this activity. This service also provides an opportunity to bring seafarers into the centre.

In Immingham in the UK, the centre had to close for a period to be renovated after being damaged by flooding. This gave the centre management the opportunity to reconfigure the centre to provide income generation by renting out of rooms and facilities to the port. It was important that seafarers were not displaced and that they remained the central users of the centre. The large meeting room, holding 50+, is in almost constant weekday use. The centre hopes to generate over $450,000 per year in trading income.

Another example of a thriving centre is Kandla in India. They have now opened a second centre in the port to serve the oil terminal. They part fund the centres through a compulsory port levy of $25 per ship for seafarers' welfare. Bremerhaven in Germany is another centre that benefits from port levies. The levy is voluntary but approximately 70% of the ships pay.

However, the main seafarer welfare organisations often have to take difficult decisions to close down unviable centres to support the development of centres in new or expanding ports. There is clearly a need for centres, especially in ports that are far away from towns or cities. With the range of pressures on seafarers at sea (such as fatigue, social isolation, and separation from loved ones) it is beneficial for crew to go ashore and find people that they can trust who offer a range of welfare services.

One solution to the shortage of funding is to look at developing seafarer centres as social enterprise projects that generate income and revenue from both seafarers and other users. We know that seafarers spend money on communications, electronic and consumer goods so why not provide opportunities for seafarers to do this at centres?

There are barriers to this of course. Chaplains and welfare workers concentrate on pastoral work and do not always have the time, desire, or experience to set up social enterprises. This is where we as a sector should come together to gain knowledge and skills and also to share success stories.

One initiative that we could take would be to talk to funders to see if they can set up an innovation fund so centres can apply for feasibility study and training grants. We need to look at what the rest of the world is doing and learn from them – both within seafarers' welfare and outside. Financial and expert support is required to enable this to happen.

Partnerships should be built – in ports and also internationally. It could be that ship owners or other maritime companies help us gain some of these commercial skills by seconding staff or helping to train welfare workers. We need to demonstrate to these companies that we can work together to sustain centres by working co-operatively and in partnership with them for the benefit of seafarers.

We need fresh thinking. Some of this is already taking place, but more should be done. ISWAN is ready to facilitate bringing new ideas into the sector so that seafarer centres can have a relevant and bright future.

If you have any comments or thoughts about the future of seafarer centres please let us know at

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