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'The buck stops with flag states' on seafarer exhaustion, webinar hears

10 March 2021

Flag states and shipping companies were challenged to act on exhaustion at sea and the adjustment of hours of work and rest records by a high-profile panel of experts at a Nautilus Webinar.

The online event, which took place on 5 March 2021 followed a bombshell study by the World Maritime University (WMU), which found that insufficient staffing levels are the root cause of malpractices in the recording of hours of work and rest. A report that Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said: 'Must act as a springboard to secure real change for seafarers.'

'I am absolutely determined that this report does not gather dust on the shelf,' he said.

Lloyd's List chief correspondent Richard Clayton moderated the event and set the tone in his opening remarks, stating that the 'shipping industry needs to tackle exhaustion and needs to do so quickly'.

Professor Raphael Baumler, who led the research for the WMU, explained that 'fear is the main driver for the adjustment of records', outlining a culture where seafarers faced blame if 'the paperwork was not in order'.

He described the situation as 'a normalisation of deviance, which is tacitly accepted by the maritime industry', and said that 'from the ship crew, to the regulators, to the shipping companies, everyone is closing their eyes to this issue'.

WMU president Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry agreed and drew focus to what she described as the 'corporate veil' in shipping, which enables companies to avoid scrutiny and accountability, and called on flag states to 'do more to enable respect for the instruments, not just in law, but in practice'.

Fundamentally, it is all about manning and the buck stops with the flag states

Katie Higginbottom, chief executive of ITF Seafarers Trust, which sponsored the research, said that she hoped it would 'make it impossible for people to ignore the situation'.

She was keen to stress that 'we cannot put the onus back on seafarers to deal with this themselves', instead arguing that 'fundamentally, it is all about manning and the buck stops with the flag states'.

She added: 'We have to keep presenting this information and say to people, "are you really happy about this now that you have got this information? That on the one hand, you're saying that you are terribly concerned about seafarers' mental health and wellbeing, but on the other hand it's somehow impossible to address this issue that has been apparent for decades?"'

Mark Dickinson was in agreement that the onus was ultimately on flag states, and argued that there was an even more urgent need to tackle the situation following the pandemic because: 'one of the consequences of Covid-19 is thousands of seafarers considering again why they made the choice to pursue this career. We are going to have to reinvent and recreate a desire for people to engage in this crucial industry that keeps global supply chains moving.'

He argued that as a bare minimum: 'Having humane working conditions, hours of work that don't make you ill and that don't put your health in danger is going to be fundamental to this.'

Concluding the event, Julie Carlton, head of seafarer safety and health at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said that she agreed with many of the points raised and undertook to 'review the report against the guidance that we have got for our surveyors, both port state and flag state'.

She also agreed to continue the MCA's role in promoting a safety culture among the companies that the UK flag works with, adding that 'it's not just about complying with the minimum hours of rest – that's a minimum, not the norm'.

The webinar was organised by Nautilus as part of its Fair Workplaces campaign. To find our more and how to get involved click here.