Inside the Issues

Putting the seafarer first

Efthimios Mitropoulos*



by Efthimios Mitropoulos

There can be no doubt that shipping plays a pivotal role in underpinning international trade. It has always provided the only really cost-effective way to transport raw materials, components, finished goods, fuel and foodstuffs over any great distance. As the human factor at the cutting edge of sea transportation, seafarers are therefore a vital component in today’s global economy. As has been said in highlighting the role of seafarers: without their contribution, half the world would freeze and the other half starve.

That is why, at the IMO, we now place consideration of the human element at the very centre of our work. Issues of concern to seafarers such as stress, fatigue, workloads, training standards, security and environmental protection are all of prime importance to the committees and sub-committees of the organisation. In the course of their work, the experts who sit on these committees take into consideration the “human element”, particularly when reviewing the adequacy of requirements and recommendations for equipment and operating manuals on board ships. As an example, the simplification and standardisation of terminology is a prerequisite and careful consideration is given to factors such as user-friendliness, safety of use, harmonisation of essential safety features and the need for clear, easily-understandable and updated operating and technical manuals.

Shipowners today clearly recognise the benefits to be gained from employing seafarers who are not only properly qualified but who also display the professional standards and technical competence needed to manage today’s ships safely and efficiently. That is why the IMO’s revised Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), which is designed to make sure that the human resource available to the shipping industry meets the required standards, is considered to be one of the most important measures to go through the IMO in recent years.

The revised and updated STCW Convention embodies a shift in the emphasis of maritime training from the demonstration of knowledge to the demonstration of competence. The implications of this are huge, not least for the long-term impact it may have on maritime casualty statistics which continue to demonstrate an improving safety and environmental protection record for international shipping. Some of this improvement can be attributed to improved technology but, with statistics also suggesting that some 80 per cent of accidents are attributable in some way to human error, the improving record is a testimony to the skills and dedication of today’s seafarers.

Another major part of the IMO’s work in the recent past which was closely related to the human element at sea was the introduction of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. As its name suggests, this code deals with management and, in particular, the responsibility of management to play a full and active part in building a safety culture on board ship and within the company to the benefit of all concerned. The code puts management squarely in the safety chain and, should something go wrong with the ship at sea, does not leave the master as solely responsible but takes the issue as far as the boardroom.

Turning now to wider issues, like everyone involved in shipping today, I am deeply concerned about the widely reported upcoming shortage of seafarers. A number of international, regional and national research studies have highlighted the scale of the problem if action is not taken soon. So we need to tackle it before it reaches unmanageable proportions. I am convinced that, through a rigorous and well-orchestrated campaign, and through paying attention to details of such issues as seafarers’ training, welfare, pay, conditions and so on, the attractiveness of seafaring as a profession, in what today has become a very competitive and international employment market, can be significantly enhanced.

But it certainly alarms me when I read and hear about plans in various countries to introduce legislation that would impose criminal sanctions against those found responsible for pollution by ships following accidents as a result of negligence. Quite apart from the possibility that the prospect of criminal proceedings might have a detrimental effect on the willingness of salvage and clean-up specialists to respond quickly, any decision to criminalise inadvertent polluters will be yet another deterrent to youngsters weighing up the pros and cons of the various career options before them.

The IMO has now taken up this matter, following a proposal that the organisation, in cooperation with the ILO, should consider the development of appropriate guidelines for the fair treatment of seafarers in such situations. This is a difficult issue but I believe it is a cause for optimism that, notwithstanding the complex and delicate nature of the subject, something positive is now being done to address it at the international level.

If the global pool of competent, properly qualified and efficient seafarers is to be increased, seafaring must be seen as a viable career choice for people of the right calibre. This clearly dictates that efforts should be made to ensure that the employment conditions for seafarers should be at least comparable with those found in other industries – particularly in view of the obvious impact that the quality of the shipping industry’s workforce has on safety at sea and protection of the marine environment.

While the vast majority of shipowners are fully aware of their obligations in this respect and honour them assiduously, nevertheless, given the global nature of the shipping industry, seafarers sometimes need special protection to help improve their working conditions and ensure their basic human rights.

Operating the complex ships of today is a skilled job at all levels, from master to deck hand. It demands that seafarers really do possess the skills necessary to carry out the various functions for which they are certificated. A troubling complication in this regard is the incidence of fraudulent practices related to obtaining statutory certificates. This is an extremely serious matter because people could be put in positions of responsibility that they are not capable of undertaking and thereby jeopardise the lives of others and the state of the marine environment.

Clearly it is essential that certificates can be relied upon and that their validity can be verified. It is therefore imperative that these practices should be stamped out. Research undertaken by the IMO has highlighted the issues involved and made recommendations for future action. That action has been taken by the STCW Sub-Committee through a series of circulars giving appropriate guidance to training institutes, maritime administrations and shipowners. But seafarers themselves have a role to play too and should take whatever steps are necessary to draw to the attention of the authorities any instances of fraudulent certification which come to their attention.

At the IMO, we have, regrettably, had to join other UN organisations in strengthening our existing measures to address the issue of security following the recent terrorist incidents around the world, foreshadowed by the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. The role of seafarers was a central consideration in the new maritime security measures that entered into force on 1 July 2004. Part of the guiding philosophy has been to create specific responsibilities, a chain of accountability and, through training, to ensure that all concerned have the appropriate skills they need to fulfil the responsibilities with which they have been entrusted.

A balanced approach is important when it comes to implementing the ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security) Code and particularly so in terms of how the Code impacts on seafarers. The IMO is concerned to ensure that there is a balance between the importance of tightening security provisions so that criminals and terrorists cannot gain access to ships and ports by posing as seafarers, while ensuring that innocent seafarers are not themselves unfairly penalised as a result – for example, by denying them shore leave.

Shipping relies heavily on the initiatives, cooperation and constant vigilance of seafarers to help prevent breaches of maritime security and, without their support and wholehearted commitment, the system the ISPS Code aims to put in place will be severely weakened. It is crucial that seafarers are not made to feel in any way rejected or that their services are not sufficiently recognised. Shore leave is very important for hard-working professionals reaching port after days or even weeks of isolation at sea, often after having faced the elements at their full strength. They should not, therefore, be unnecessarily restricted.

Governments and port authorities should treat seafarers as partners in the fight against terrorism and facilitate their access to ports and shore facilities. Fast turnaround times mean port stays are short these days and the pressure on seafarers is growing all the time. For the sake of safety and efficiency, as well as for the security aspect, they need adequate opportunity to relax and recover before they take their ships out to sea again in pursuit of their peaceful objectives in the service of world trade.

Thanks to the efforts of the IMO and others, ships are now designed, built, equipped, operated and manned to standards more exacting than ever before.

Nevertheless, every year too many seafarers are either injured or lose their lives in maritime accidents. More often than not, their injuries and deaths go largely unrecorded and are soon forgotten by all but close friends and families.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the IMO in 1998, a trust fund dedicated to seafarers was inaugurated – generously supported by the ITF. The fund has been used, among other things, to create a permanent memorial to seafarers at IMO headquarters, which acts as a constant reminder of the important role they play and of what the work of the 0rganisation is really all about. In pursuing our mission statement of “Safe, secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans”, we never forget that achieving such objectives would be simply impossible without the vital contribution of the seafarer.