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ISWAN’s 2024 Q1 helpline data reflects tough working conditions in merchant shipping

June 04, 2024
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Data from the first quarter of 2024 from the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network’s (ISWAN) helpline SeafarerHelp points to the complex working conditions facing many seafarers.

The first quarter of 2024 saw the dangers of working at sea gain increased prominence in mainstream media headlines. In March 2024, the International Bargaining Forum (IBF) designated the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden ‘Warlike’ zones in the wake of the death of three seafarers in a missile attack by Houthi rebels. In addition to the orchestrated attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea, shipping also had to contend with a resurgence of Somali piracy incidences, forcing the industry to make rapid changes to trade routes and security protocol.

In the context of this dangerous geopolitical backdrop, data from SeafarerHelp, ISWAN’s free, confidential helpline for seafarers and their families, suggests that many seafarers are facing complex and stressful working situations at sea. Between January and March 2024, ISWAN saw steep rises in the number of seafarers contacting SeafarerHelp in relation to a range of contractual issues, including repatriation difficulties, unpaid wages, unfair dismissal and abandonment.

In the first quarter of 2024, SeafarerHelp received 63 contacts (calls or messages) relating to issues with repatriation – an increase of 57.5% on the 40 contacts received in the same period in 2023 – and ISWAN subsequently provided assistance to 125 seafarers. In 29% of cases, the seafarer was seeking early repatriation for personal reasons. However, 71% of cases related to repatriation delays at a company level, indicating the need for continued action to ensure that seafarers’ wellbeing is not negatively impacted by crew change delays.

Between January and March, SeafarerHelp also received 69 contacts and assisted 261 seafarers regarding unpaid wages, up by 19.0% from 58 contacts in the first quarter of 2023. In the most extreme cases, ISWAN provided support to 112 seafarers whose vessel had been abandoned by their company. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2024, ISWAN assisted in 12 cases of abandonment, in comparison with three cases in the same period the previous year, and 16 cases for the entire of 2023.

The first quarter of 2024 saw a concerning rise in the number of seafarers seeking support from SeafarerHelp to cope with an experience of abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination or violence (ABHDV) at sea. SeafarerHelp received 54 contacts relating to ABHDV, an increase of 63.6% on the same period in 2023 and the highest quarterly total since the current reporting system began in 2019. In a number of cases, seafarers reported being affected by both abusive treatment and violations of their contractual rights, including unpaid wages, unpaid overtime and lack of observance of work/rest hours. For example, one seafarer sought support from SeafarerHelp having been asked to work excessive hours for a number of months. He also told helpline officers that his living conditions were unsanitary and that he had been threatened by senior officers not to raise a complaint to his company. Although his mental health was several impacted, he was too afraid of losing his job to take action. ISWAN provided emotional support as well as signposting to trade unions.

Simon Grainge, Chief Executive of ISWAN, said:

‘The increase in contacts to SeafarerHelp in relation to repatriation, unpaid wages and abuse, bullying, harassment, violence and discrimination is very concerning. Recent events in the Red Sea and elsewhere in the world have shone a spotlight on how dangerous seafaring can be as a profession. At a time when seafarers are being expressly targeted in geopolitical conflicts, it’s vital that the industry is united in taking swift action to protect their wellbeing. Shipping is currently facing exceptional stresses, but despite this, it’s crucial to ensure that seafarers’ working rights and welfare do not suffer.’

ISWAN’s infographic, ISWAN Insights: Spotlight on Q1 2024, can be downloaded below. For more information, please contact ISWAN at iswan@iswan.org.uk.

ISWAN’s free, confidential, multilingual helplines are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to offer support or someone to talk to. SeafarerHelp (www.seafarerhelp.org) is available to any seafarer or family member, and Yacht Crew Help (www.yachtcrewhelp.org) provides support specifically to those working on board yachts. ISWAN’s helpline team is trained in providing emotional support and offers a listening ear to any seafarer with a worry or problem.

ISWAN Insights: Spotlight on SeafarerHelp (Q1 2024)

An infographic sharing insights into the issues faced by seafarers and their families in Q1 2024 using data from ISWAN's helpline SeafarerHelp.

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