“There is humanity in taking care of people and profitability in doing it wisely,” the Global Maritime Forum has stated, reflecting how investing on employees’ wellbeing is linked to long-term positive benefits for organizations that look ahead. As a particularly vulnerable industry in terms of human right protection, shipping has shed its attention to human sustainability in the last few years, but the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have added new concerns to this chronic debate.
What is sustainability?
Sustainability is a broad concept, with scholars being unable to agree in a universal definition. In the charter for the UCLA Sustainability Committee, sustainability is defined as “the integration of environmental health, social equity and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come”.
In simpler words, sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and contains three pillars (also called the 3 “Es”): Environment, Equity, and Economy. According to UNESCO, sustainability is thought of as a long-term goal, while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it.
Sustainability and the shipping industry
Sustainability is a concept widely used in maritime sector, most times falsely identified with green sustainability. “Green shipping” is also a term often discussed across the sector and typically refers to the concept of sustainable development incorporating environmental responsibility. As a result, most maritime sustainability initiatives so far have emphasized on environmental issues, leaving the hot issue of human rights lagging behind. Human rights have always been a red-zone-topic for shipping, as living onboard can impede the efficient monitoring of regulations implementation. Furthermore, the isolation associated with seafaring is hard, not only for those who are assigned on roles onboard, but also for those who stay back home.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed radically the industry’s status quo, leaving hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded for consecutive months beyond the 11-month maximum period of service onboard. In many cases, crews trapped on ships were deprived basic human rights, including access to medical care, which often created adverse effects for their mental health and damaged the attractiveness of a career at sea. This new landscape highlighted the working conditions in shipping, as well as the need for the industry to extend the existing sustainability agenda of the industry to further include the human aspect – both at sea and onshore.
Human sustainability in shipping: Current initiatives
- April 2022 was a key month for sustainability in shipping. It was earlier in April that the Global Maritime Forum issued an essay competition inviting students and young professionals to share their ideas on how to significantly improve human sustainability across the maritime industry by 2030.
- Except for the GMF initiative, April also saw a group of maritime stakeholders, led by shipping medical services provider Vikand Solutions LLC, launching the Seafarers’ Human Sustainability Declaration, aiming to boost the recognition of the human sustainability needs of seafarers by the shipping industry, both today and in the future. The main goal is to spark discussions across the industry and make seafarer human sustainability a priority for the whole of the shipping industry.
- On March 1st, the UK-based NGO Human Rights at Sea officially launched the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea, with the aim to define and defend the human rights of all people crossing the world’s oceans and seas. Put into force three years after its initial conceptualization, the milestone Declaration targets human rights abuses stemming from piracy, criminal violence, breaches of maritime labour rights, seafarer abandonment, slavery, trafficking, child labour, and failures in equality and inclusion. The Geneva Declaration is open for public consultation until 1st September 2022.
- In addition, under the voluntary UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), businesses have a responsibility to respect seafarers’ rights as workers along their supply chains. Several cargo owners, including Unilever and Consumer Goods Forum companies, have already called for seafarers to be designated as key workers.
- Meanwhile, the shipping sector is a major focus area of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), which has partnered with the Sustainable Shipping Initiative and Rafto on the development of a human rights code of conduct for charterers, and a roadmap for tackling systemic challenges that create human rights risks for seafarers. The code is accompanied by a self-assessment questionnaire to help shipowners and operators progressively improve their performance against the code.
- As a result of the crew change crisis, dozens of hundreds of organizations joined forces in January 2021 on the signing of Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, that recognized, among others, seafarers as key workers and gave them priority access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Why human sustainability in shipping?
It becomes evident that shipping has already realized the necessity of shifting its focus to the human aspect of sustainability. Identified with seafarers’ wellness, human sustainability has been arising, not only as a beneficial corporate strategy proven by relevant studies, but also as a necessity in today’s human-centralized world. Meanwhile, a recent study from Linchpin proved a 62% decrease in health care costs and 54% increase in productivity in a company investing in health and wellness programs. However, the Global Maritime Forum argues, making human sustainability a strategic priority is not only about reducing incidents and consequently costs:
Cohesive health and wellness programs for seafarers are…easily translated into improved health and safety onboard which, in turn, promotes a more engaged workforce
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