TALKING POINT: Securing seafarers’ rights for a sustainable future

May 23, 2023
Credit Wilhelmsen Ship Management
© Wilhelmsen Ship Management

Each month, we will be sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This month, Andrew Stephens, Executive Director at the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI), discusses how SSI is working with industry stakeholders to improve seafarer welfare and company respect of seafarer rights.

Andrew has a truly international background in the maritime industry, working as Chief Operating Officer for leading companies such as Wilhelmsen Ships Service and Wallem Group before joining the Sustainable Shipping Initiative as Executive Director in August 2018. In his time at SSI, Andrew has overseen an expanded work programme that looks to address systemic sustainability issues in shipping, from seafarers’ rights to sustainability criteria for marine fuels to the role of circular economy principles in shipping. He has also overseen a period of increased diversity in SSI membership, including the Port of Vancouver becoming the first port member (November 2022), and the addition of human rights expertise through NGO member the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) (January 2022). In his role as Executive Director, Andrew regularly represents SSI at events and works to raise widespread awareness of the need for a systemic sustainability transition for the shipping sector. This has included speaking at COP, the Our Ocean Conference, London International Shipping Week, among others. He is based in the UK.

The pandemic shifted the way seafarers are discussed within and beyond shipping. As office workers started working from home and discourse around key workers emerged, seafarers were being denied entry to countries. Excluded from the key worker and similar special status afforded to airline crew, seafarers were stranded – either at home without a job to pay their wages, or at sea, away from home and loved ones for much longer than intended, beyond the 11-month maximum period on board mandated by the Maritime Labour Convention.

What seafarers experienced was unfortunately not new – it was an unveiling and an escalation of existing, but mostly ignored, issues when it comes to seafarers’ rights and wellbeing.

In 2023, ignorance cannot be an excuse. We can’t say ‘We didn’t know’, or ‘We didn’t see’. The old adage of ‘Out of sight is out of mind’ is no longer relevant. We heard calls for seafarers to be considered key workers, read about closed borders and lack of access to vaccines, and all the while the number of abandonments reported to the ILO-IMO database continued to increase (abandonments in 2022 were the highest recorded).

Every worker has a right to a safe, healthy, and secure work environment, regardless of role, location or sector. We need to ensure this for seafarers, whose ship is not only their workplace but their temporary home at sea.

So now that we know, what can we do?

In 2020, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) began working on a project with the goal of improving the welfare and company respect for human rights of the world’s nearly two million seafarers. Details of how we could achieve this were undefined, but we had the buy-in from SSI members to take on the topic (SSI is member-led, with currently 17 members across the maritime ecosystem representing shipowners, charterers, ship managers, ports, NGOs and others, including IHRB). So we got to work.

What became clear through initial consultations was the need for clear guidance on companies’ human and labour rights obligations – including and going beyond regulatory compliance. This need was articulated by shipowners and ship managers, who have direct responsibility for seafarers, and by charterers and cargo owners. Although typically further removed from the seafarer, charterers and cargo owners are already involved in addressing human and labour rights risks throughout their supply chains. As such these companies have leverage over the ship operators they work with, and can demand that the vessels carrying their cargo maintain high standards in terms of the rights and wellbeing of crew.

In 2021, we launched the Delivering on seafarers’ rights Code of Conduct, developed in collaboration with the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, which defined 52 clauses across seven sections covering everything from fair terms of employment, to access to mental health services, to repatriation. It is intended to be used by shipowners, operators, and managers to understand their seafarers’ rights and welfare obligations, map their performance, and commit to making improvements. The Code of Conduct was accompanied by a self-assessment questionnaire and tool, developed in collaboration with RightShip, which provides guidance for companies wishing to adopt the commitments outlined in the Code of Conduct. This includes a list of evidence requirements that can be used to validate the self-assessment and three levels of compliance (basic, intermediate, and excellent) to benchmark progress.

Shipowners, operators, managers, and cargo owners are encouraged to use these tools in their own due diligence processes, supplier discussions, and embedding these principles within their organisations and in their supply chains. This provides a partnership opportunity to tackle supply chain risks, such as human rights abuses and modern slavery. Coles Group (Coles) and MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company SA (MSC) have included specific clauses related to seafarer wellbeing in their commercial contract, and collaborated on a pilot in 2021 to track how vessels implemented human rights-related contractual compliance requirements.

Looking ahead

As we approach the third year of the Code of Conduct, we are exploring avenues to further progress our objective – improving seafarer welfare and company respect of seafarer rights. The work done so far marks an important first step. Shipping companies are beginning the internal work of understanding their performance against the self-assessment and identifying priorities for moving ahead.

Since October 2021 and the launch of the Crew Welfare Self-Assessment Tool on the RightShip platform (where companies are able to complete and submit their self-assessment even if they are not RightShip customers), 252 companies have made submissions as of April 2023, covering a total of 6,609 vessels.

Over the past two years, we’ve also had numerous discussions around assurance and the need for verification and transparency, in order to build trust and create a strong foundation upon which companies can work together to respect seafarers’ rights and improve wellbeing. Credible assessments that are independently verified and made freely available to interested parties are critical for the Delivering on seafarers’ rights project to succeed.

In addition to being a useful tool for customers and collaborators to have access to, imagine the impact that transparency around human rights and welfare could have for seafarers themselves, the awareness built and their empowerment when considering employers and career choices1.

Equal rights and consideration for seafarers and their land-based peers will be an absolute minimum threshold for shipping to meet in the not-too-distant future. Seafarers are at the core of the sector’s decarbonisation, operating vessels running on new fuels and using new onboard technologies. Raising the bar now to ensure the people working at sea have a safe, healthy, and secure work environment and are treated fairly is the right thing to do, yes. But it’s also necessary to secure a future workforce for the industry, to ensure that future generations of seafarers are respected and rewarded for the critical work they do keeping supply chains moving.

If you are in a position of influence as a shipowner, operator, manager, or cargo owner – we call on you to raise the bar now in your organisation. Download the Code of Conduct and the self-assessment questionnaire and get started.

If you are a current or future seafarer, understanding your rights is the most important step in making sure you can recognise when things aren’t right.

1Not all seafarers can be selective when it comes to their employers. The charging of recruitment fees and the risk of bonded labour are common in shipping. More information about this can be read in a research briefing published by IHRB and SSI in April 2023 here:

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