From the first discussions on harassment in the workplace dated as recently as in the 1970s, to the #MeToo movement that exposed deeply rooted malfunctions of the society in terms of eliminating sexual harassment, a greater awareness seems to be gaining ground on the issue.
he maritime industry itself seems to be more sensitive and aware on shipboard harassment and bullying against seafarers as an occupational health and safety issue, but its male-dominated nature and the fact that the working environment constitutes an enclosed space such as a ship create unique challenges to the approach of the issue.
According to a dedicated report by ITF and ICS, harassment includes any inappropriate and unwelcome conduct which, whether intentionally or not, creates feelings of unease, humiliation, embarrassment or discomfort for the recipient. Except for the obvious argument that ensuring a safe working environment for seafarers is a matter of good employment practice, there are also serious economic motives for companies to focus on the elimination of bullying and harassment onboard, as demotivated crew members are more likely to suffer from stress leading to absence from duties or even leave their employment, resulting in additional recruitment expenses.
The US Merchant Marine Academy was recently shaken by news of rape of a 19-year-old member of the class of 2022, by a senior mate, while serving her year at sea onboard a Maersk vessel. As soon as the scandal emerged, the Danish shipping giant suspended five employees as part of an investigation into the alleged sexual assault, while the USMMA suspended the Sea Year programme which provides students with the opportunity to ship out on commercial vessels. This is actually the second time in five years that the program has been paused over allegations of sexual misconduct at sea.
In another recent case, ITF informed last month that one of its inspectors was physically assaulted by a ship Master during routine investigation onboard. In addition, in early 2021, British charity Human Rights at Sea received an urgent call for assistance from an engine cadet who had been seriously assaulted by a senior crew member on a container ship en-route to the Port of London. The assault included throwing a chair to the victim and chasing him with a knife to kill him.
What was the industry response?
- As a result of the USMMA case, US Senators introduced the Improving Protections for Midshipmen Act, which would strengthen Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment (SASH) prevention, response and investigation in the maritime industry. US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg took time to address the IMO General Assembly meeting in London by videoconference where he emphasized, among others, on the rarely-discussed problem of sexual harassment at sea.
- Amid the growing discussion that these disclosures have triggered, and on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25th November, trade union Nautilus International reiterated its dedicated helpline for crew affected by sexual violence or gender discrimination while at sea.
- On their part, the Seafarers’ Charity announced earlier in the year the award of grants of £844,760 to 17 organizations to new online services to support, among others, seafarers who have experienced sexual violence.
What does these mean for shipping?
Research suggests that people with less power in the workplace are more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Considering the above cases in combination, it can be argued that seafarers are more likely to suffer bullying and harassment in their early careers, e.g., when they are cadets, which is likely to discourage them to retain their jobs.
Reflecting the need to address this phenomenon, in June 2021, the ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention (also known as C190) came into force, as the first international treaty to recognize the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment. Governments that ratify C190 will be required to put in place the necessary laws and policy measures to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work. The MLC has also recognized the negative effect that harassment can have on seafarer health and wellbeing and voted to bring these serious issues under Regulation 4.3, – the health and safety protection and accident protection code.
But how easy is to monitor the implementation of regulations on a ship navigating far from shore and where each flag state is enabled to take a different approach to the issue of sexual harassment? And also, what happens when we talk about such a multi-cultural industry where harassment is interpreted based on power relations or gender norms, that are different in every culture and country?
Another main challenge remains the current shaped culture which sees the exposure and media coverage of such cases as tarnishing the future recruitment of seafarers and the wider industry reputation, according to HRAS, thus condoning criminal activities by ignoring the life-changing implications on the individual.
“The lack of ability to officially report such incidents compounds a victim’s fear of being belittled, of not being believed, of being blacklisted, and thereby classed as a troublemaker. The matter is further compounded by a collective industry ignorance and unwillingness of sector leaders to address, head on, the effects on the individual and their families,
In an environment where complaint procedures are clearly not sufficient, a strong preventative approach by both states and businesses is of vital importance, with the discussion shifting back again to the necessity of education and training.