Seafarers can find themselves in financial hardship for all kinds of reasons, including lack of employment during Covid-19. Fortunately for the UK maritime community, there is a dedicated Citizens Advice service specialising in issues faced by serving and retired seafarers and their dependants. And the service is completely free to users. Miles Cowley, manager at the Seafarers’ Advice & Information Line (SAIL), explains how the organisation can help with money worries
What is SAIL?
SAIL was set up in 1996 to help working and former seafarers in the UK, and their dependants, with all kinds of financial difficulties.
We help Merchant Navy seafarers and fishermen, and recently started assisting people in the Royal Navy too. It’s a completely free service and we’re actually part of Citizens Advice, so we deliver the same high standards you would expect from a trusted national body.
We have 10 paid advisors, some working full time and some part time, and can give advice across the UK, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where different rules may apply compared to England.
Our funding comes from three big maritime charities: Seafarers Hospital Society, Seafarers UK and Greenwich Hospital.
How is SAIL different from other support services that might be available?
We specialise in the maritime industry. Of course, every seafarer is different, but we are familiar with many of the financial issues that they might face. We’re also somewhat different from normal Citizens Advice in that we’re not ‘one off’; we form a relationship with our clients until the problem is solved. It takes anything from a few weeks to a few months – even up to a year – to help people, perhaps 10 or 15 contacts.
Every person who calls us gets a dedicated advisor rather than being passed from one person to the next. For example, when you talk to Ross it will be him that you speak to every time until your situation is resolved. I think that personal relationship is fairly unique.
What kind of financial concerns do seafarers commonly approach you with?
Our work is mostly on benefits and money issues, which can range from a problem with a direct debit payment to someone who wants to go through bankruptcy.
For working seafarers, the most common queries are about money worries and tax, with occasional questions on pensions. Ex-seafarers tend to call about benefits, pensions and grants. Although we don’t give out grants ourselves, we make sure that anyone who is eligible knows where to go.
We cover the legal side of situations such as family breakups – for example, child maintenance and the splitting of assets – and also get quite a few questions about immigration from seafarers with partners that are not British nationals. We get our fair share of consumer issues too, like problems with mobile phone contracts.
It's a completely free service and we're actually part of Citizens Advice, so we deliver the same high standards you would expect from a trusted national body
How has Covid-19 changed SAIL’s work?
In the Covid era we’ve talked to a lot of seafarers who have lost their jobs or been financially impacted by the pandemic; primarily ferry and cruise ship workers.
There are definitely a number of seafarers who would like to be working but can’t. For example, we recently spoke to someone who couldn’t get a Covid test in time for the two or three job opportunities they had.
In the past year we took on 1,300 new clients as well as providing help to ongoing clients. 2020 will turn out to have been a record year for us, based on the impact of coronavirus. Fortunately, our funders understand the situation and we have been able to take on two new full-time staff thanks to their generosity.
Is there any extra help you can offer to seafarers affected by Covid-19?
Yes; we have the new UK Maritime Anchor Fund. We’re the point of contact for that, making applications for seafarers who need financial help because they have lost their jobs for a Covid-related reason.
Is there still a stigma around seeking help with financial issues?
There’s definitely a stigma, and the unfortunate consequence is that people tend to contact us only when their situation starts to get desperate – it would be better if they got in touch when they had budgeting issues rather than when the bailiffs are at the door.
We try to help with the stigma in several ways. First, our service is completely confidential. We’re bound by very tight rules on this by Citizens Advice and the Financial Conduct Authority. We’re also very discreet and can talk to only one partner in a relationship if the person who contacts us prefers this.
Secondly, the personal relationship with a dedicated advisor is part of the solution.
Third, we give a dispassionate view. To someone experiencing financial difficulty it can seem earth-shattering, but all our advisors are debt trained and have seen lots of people with debt problems – it’s something they’re completely familiar with, so they can get on with finding a solution straightaway.
What is the most rewarding part of the job?
Recently someone got in touch to say: ‘Without you, I think I would have committed suicide’. Once someone sorts out their money worries they feel a great deal of relief – and, of course, there’s a huge amount of evidence linking money issues to mental health – so we get amazing comments from people saying they feel that their life has been transformed for the better with our help.