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An Insightful Interview on Seafarers’ Welfare

The welfare of seafarers, despite being the lifeblood of international trade, remains a pressing concern in the maritime industry. In this written interview with Mr. David Appleton of Nautilus International, we delve into the heart of the matter, exploring the nuances of seafarers’ welfare, the challenges they face, and the imperative for collective action to address their needs.

Q. Please provide a brief introduction including your title, name, and organization, along with a short anecdote detailing your involvement in seafaring.

My name is David Appleton. I am Head of Professional & Technical at Nautilus International. Nautilus International is the Trade Union and Professional Organization representing over 20,000 Masters, Officers, Officer Trainees, Marine Pilots, Port Personnel and other Maritime Professionals in the UK, Netherlands, and Switzerland. We are an affiliate of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Federation of Shipmasters Associations (IFSMA) both of which have observer status at the IMO.

© Jess Hurd 15/12/2021 London, UK. David Appleton Nautilus International portraits, South Woodford, London. Photo credit: Jess Hurd

Q. Could you give us a concise overview of the PT Forum? Share its objectives, the issues it aims to tackle, and highlight three or four significant accomplishments since its inception.

The Nautilus Professional & Technical Forum provides a platform for information sharing between the Union and its members. As a member-led organization we seek to take members views into account in all of our policy decisions and the P&T Forum provides seafarers with an opportunity to provide their views to us on a wide range of issues relating to safety, training, and certification. Recent sessions have focused on a number of different topical issues including the development of the non-mandatory code for MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships), hours of work and rest, and issues raised by the fire onboard the Freemantle Highway.

Q. Shifting our focus to current affairs, the Red Sea has become a focal point due to repeated attacks on international shipping by Houthi rebels. While media attention often emphasizes the impact on global trade and Egypt’s economy, little is said about the experiences of seafarers navigating these perilous waters. Could you shed some light on this aspect?

One of the key themes that came out of the P&T forum was the feeling from many seafarers that much of the discussion surrounding the attacks in the media is in rather abstract terms, focusing on potential impacts on inflation or wider implications for stability in the region. However, when you are a seafarer onboard, the threat is very real and has significant impacts in terms of stress and anxiety caused.  Additionally, when seafarers are required to transit high risk areas and place themselves at of risk of coming under attack as many have done in recent months, they feel it is only fair that some sort of recognition is given to the fact that these are not normal circumstances. In the words of one seafarer at the forum; “This is not what we signed up for”.

Q. Many nations, including the UK, US, and India, have deployed forces in the Red Sea to safeguard merchant ships. However, with Houthi rebels increasingly using cost-effective drone attacks, how viable is this intervention strategy in the long run?

Seafarers are grateful for the efforts of the international community that has committed significant resources aimed at keeping them safe and protecting freedom of navigation. They are however acutely aware that the nature of the threat currently being faced is very different to the threats previously dealt with in the area arising from Somali Piracy. Although it would appear that Operation Prosperity Guardian has had some success in repelling attacks, there are still a large number getting through. In terms of how long the operation can be maintained, we would hope that this would continue for as long as seafarers’ lives were being endangered by these attacks.

Q. In the past five years, the shipping industry has faced significant challenges, from the crew change crisis exacerbated by COVID-19 to the recent attacks in the Red Sea. Have there been any notable improvements in crew welfare during this period?

Seafarers have faced a number of crises over the last few years. Most had a terrible experience throughout the pandemic, with many either being trapped onboard for months on end or being stuck at home with no work due to many countries’ failure to designate them as keyworkers and allow crew changes. When you combine this experience with the often-poor living and working conditions, risk of criminalization, lack of employment protection and now, the prospect of facing missile and UAV attacks, it is little wonder that industry is in many cases struggling to recruit new entrants.

Q. Despite industry recommendations to use BMP 5 to mitigate issues stemming from attacks, forum participants argue that the document doesn’t adequately address the current crisis. Why is this the case, and what steps can be taken to rectify it?

BMP 5 was drawn up primarily to deal with the threat from boardings and attempted boardings by pirates. Whilst there have been attempts at boardings during the current crisis, the primary threat is missile and UAV attacks. The sections on risk assessment and planning may still be useful to companies assessing when determining the level of risk, but there is literally nothing in the current guidance that would be of any use to seafarers on a vessel that is already in the area. In fact, when it comes to missile attacks, the guidance states that merchant ships are very unlikely to be the target of an attack but if they are, then there is nothing they can do about it. If industry is going to advise seafarers to comply with guidance as a mitigation, then that guidance should at the very least be relevant to the threat.

Q. The forum has discussed various threats to seafaring careers, including blacklisting, prolonged repatriation delays during the pandemic, sudden job losses, and the rise of automation. How is your organization addressing these concerns?

In collaboration with our international partners, we are constantly striving to improve seafarer welfare through ensuring effective implementation and enforcement of legislation aimed at seafarer protection including the MLC (Maritime Labour Convention, 2006). Additionally, we are campaigning for a Just Transition to cleaner fuels and increased automation.

Q. Finally, what message would you like to leave us with as we conclude our discussion?

That we recognize the severe difficulties that the current crisis is causing to nations and the entire maritime industry however, we should always remember that it is seafarers who are on the front line and their safety should take always take precedence over any other considerations.


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