Friday, 23 April 2021

Treating Seafarers Decently by Michael Grey

Go on, stop on

By Michael Grey

There could, I was reading the other day, be something of a societal change taking place as we emerge from Covid, to a kinder, greener and more inclusive world. This was evidenced by several of the most prominent finance houses and management consultants suggesting they would move away from their more inhuman practices such as making junior members of staff work long and antisocial hour.
Responding to objections from post-millennials, who would like some time off on their career path en-route to ludicrous rewards, it has been suggested that they might get the odd weekend to themselves. The Scots have been toying with the notion of a four-day week, although that might have something to do with an upcoming election.

Forecasts of societal change are perilous and natural sceptics will suggest that once we get back to something approaching normality, old habits will re-assert themselves. But it would be nice if the outbreak of universal kindness over the world of work could be exported to the maritime world, where there are few signs of it, thus far. True, there are all sorts of supportive messages about the need to consider the mental health of seafarers, just as long as its cost doesn’t appear on the ship owner’s balance sheet.  My old secretary, who was fond of killer put-downs, might have suggested that such are “all mouth and no trousers”.

But there is no evidence whatever that the frequently voiced complaints about exhaustion, fatigue and the dubious compliance with MLC rules, are producing any changes. Both the recent World Maritime University and Cardiff University studies on compliance with regulations on work and rest hours ought to have rung warning bells about an industry operating on the edge of legality. These reports, along with the effects of the pandemic, seem to have stimulated a certain amount of debate among seagoing professionals, mostly in the form of correspondence to their various organisations.

One rather shocking letter published in the Nautical Institute’s Seaways magazine tells of a tanker officer who suffered a heart attack after working 84 hours without a break. The same correspondent writes that on every ship he had served on, “hours of work were regularly exceeded due to the demands of compliance with other safety and operational matters”. Another, in the same issue, notes that none of his older colleagues seem to be surviving into old age following a working life of disrupted circadian rhythms and fatigue taken for granted. The old jokes about ship’s officers being woken up by officials checking up on the hours of rest really aren’t funny anymore.

It is obvious that firstly, there are not sufficient people aboard most ships to deal with the work that needs to be done, that the operational and bureaucratic burden on a few senior officers has become unbearable and that the pace of modern ship operations has become ridiculous. And none of this is going to be remotely improved by clever apps on smartphones or even software that will keep ships’ officers’ noses stuck in front of their screens inputting garbage that somebody demands ashore. Sure, we might get all the machinery wired up to transmit data to the engine manufacturer and wonderful “digitisation” that is said to be the cat’s pyjamas. Will any of this reduce the incessant demands upon a few exhausted people aboard ship? There needs to be a realistic assessment of the work that needs to be done, and the people available to do it, with proper leeway for illness, emergencies and the frequent untoward demands. There also needs to be a more rigorous application of the rules – the airlines would be an excellent example to follow, where there is no elasticity whatever. Or we could just slow down to a reasonable pace – we are not fighting a war here, but maintaining world trade and that shouldn’t be at the expense of anyone’s health. That’s what society seems to be saying, but will shipping shut its collective ears?

Michael Grey is former editor of Lloyd’s List.

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