In an exclusive interview to SAFETY4SEA, Stuart Rivers, Chief Executive at the Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) which is the umbrella charity for the UK Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets, said that connectivity, food, and shore leave continue to be essential for seafarers, just as they are for ordinary people.
herefore, it is of the utmost importance for ship managers and operators to assure these three pillars and adopt numerous additional welfare initiatives for seafarers. These actions will not only enhance the long term reputation of companies, but will also make seafarers feel valued. In addition, Stuart Rivers recommends that more nations consider implementing mandatory port levies to finance seafarers’ welfare, as New Zealand, France, Germany, and Romania have done. Nonetheless, he concludes that ‘’welfare is a matter of the heart not the pocket’’, and that everyone should genuinely care for one another.
SAFETY4SEA: What are the key priorities in your agenda for the next five years?
Stuart Rivers: MNWB’s priorities over the next five years are to (i) drive up welfare standards in UK ports through self-assessment; (ii) pursue port levies to provide sustainable funding for welfare services; (iii) increase the availability of welfare services and facilities to the UK’s 111 ports and over 400 harbours.
S4S: From your perspective, which are the key challenges for crew welfare? Do you see any opportunities or positive developments arising?
St.R.: More than ever, and since the pandemic, funding of crew welfare is the biggest challenge. Most frontline welfare providers have had to eat into their reserves over the past few years and, for many, income has not recovered to its pre-pandemic level. Compounding this is a reduction in the volunteer base that supports port welfare. The workforce delivering welfare services – staffing centres, transporting seafarers, visiting ships – is hugely reliant on volunteers. Currently, volunteers make up 64% of the workforce (a ratio of 2 volunteers for every paid employee), but for welfare provision to be sustainable the ratio needs to be at least 3:1, meaning there is currently a shortfall of almost 150 volunteers. On the positive side, the current pressures are driving the need for collaboration and there is an opportunity for MNWB to develop volunteer recruitment and retention initiatives at scale for the whole of the UK.
S4S: Which are the key welfare areas that require room for improvement to ensure good working and living conditions onboard and why?
St.R.: Unsurprisingly, connectivity, food and shore leave continue to be important to seafarers. Although the 2024 amendments to MLC 2006 should make a difference, I’m not convinced that a few shipowners won’t make cuts elsewhere to fund, for example, internet access onboard. Seafarers have a right to expect similar working conditions to those working ashore. If employers aren’t prepared to provide a workplace that offers these basic necessities – opportunity to connect with family, nutritional diet and time away from their workplace – then the reputation and bottom line of shipowners is likely to suffer in the long term.
S4S: From your experience, what key lessons have you learned during your time in the industry with regard to life onboard?
St.R.: Over the past ten years, I have learned that seafarers’ needs are no different to anyone else’s needs. Seafarers just want parity with those in shore based jobs. Yes, it’s very different at sea, but basic human needs can still be met and, when ashore, it is the simple things that they appreciate like the opportunity to go shopping, make a video call, relax in a comfortable environment. Seafarers keep the global economy alive and they are an asset to any shipowner. Let’s treat them as well as possible.
S4S: With the energy transition and changing technologies in shipping, are there any issues relating to crew welfare that need extra care?
St.R.: Decarbonisation may bring new pressures on crew, and challenges for shipping companies, ports and governments. But this is also an opportunity for personal development for those working at sea if they are willing to invest in themselves. The green economy will offer new opportunities onboard and ashore so the maritime workforce needs to be ready for the most significant change, perhaps in their whole career.
S4S: Do you think there is need for regulatory update or best practices towards to further enhance crew welfare? In your, view, how can we go the extra mile for changing seafarers and industry’s mindset and embracing a healthier lifestyle?
St.R.: Many companies have introduced initiatives to drive up safety standards onboard. These initiatives sit alongside statutory codes and there is proven success in reducing incidents and accidents on vessels. MNWB would like to see widespread adoption of onboard welfare initiatives – equipping crew to identify, support and make interventions to ensure that no seafarer suffers alone. As already said, seafarers are an asset just as the ship and cargo are assets.
S4S: What further changes do you think the maritime industry needs to make to attract more men and women to a career in seafaring/ within the maritime industry? How should we work to raise industry’s profile and visibility?
St.R.: The shipping industry has long been a hidden industry. Despite the efforts of some in recent years (I hear the mantra, ‘90% of everything…’ again), there is little sign that public awareness (or interest) has increased. The UK is an island nation with a high dependence on shipping for its economy and its survival. Yet neither industry nor Uk Government has managed to raise the profile of seafaring as a career significantly enough. As for women, minority groups, and the marginalised, I think the industry has a lot more work to do to make seafaring an attractive career proposition.
S4S: If you could change one thing that would have an either profound or immediate impact on maritime stakeholders’ wellness & wellbeing, what this one thing would it be and why?
St.R.: Introduce mandatory port levies to fund seafarers’ welfare. Countries such as New Zealand, France, Germany and Romania already have welfare levies. Dozens of other countries, including Australia, Canada and The Netherlands are working on levy schemes and the UK are falling behind. Since its inception, MLC 2006 has recommended port levies as a means to support welfare provision. To date, very few of the 101 signatories have legislated for welfare levies, yet to do so would be a game changer for seafarers’ welfare in UK sports.
S4S: Do you have any projects/ plans that you would like to share with industry stakeholders?
St.R.: MNWB has been running the Vehicle Replacement Programme for fifteen years now. This programme ensures that transport is available in ports to provide safe and reliable passage within the port and to local services, such as shopping, medical services and leisure activities. Currently, there are 68 vehicles deployed in UK ports that are replaced on a cycle of 7 years to ensure the fleet is serviceable at all times. Over the next 3 years, we need to secure corporate funding for the programme and to see the fleet grow. It takes an investment of around £200k per year to maintain to replacement cycle, which I believe is excellent value for a fleet this size.
S4S: What is your key message to industry stakeholders and people onboard to foster their resilience?
St.R.: Care for one another. If everyone is genuinely looking out for each other then resilience will build, safety will improve and welfare will be matter of the heart not the pocket.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes discussion purposes only.