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ISWAN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ROGER HARRIS: Promoting social justice at sea

ISWAN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ROGER HARRIS: Promoting social justice at sea
YASHIKA F. TORIB May 15, 2019

Globetrotting lifestyle. Adventure-filled job. Lucrative career offers. These are some of the common reasons why thousands of young men and women flock to maritime institutions every year with high hopes of working onboard ships and making it big in the global maritime industry.

Behind the romanticized persona of ship captains and the perceived glamour of the profession, however, is the nomadic, isolated, hectic and perilous life at sea. While majority of the world’s population benefit from the labors of a seafarer, being that 95 percent of global trade and commodities are moved by sea transport, only a few truly sees and understands the struggles of a merchant mariner.

Roger Harris is among them.

Harris, the executive director of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (Iswan), sees through the sheer fabric of misconception in the seafaring profession and took action.

“I believe that the lives of seafarers are largely hidden from view. The wider society does not realize the role that seafarers play in our everyday lives. We owe them a lot,” the London-based director said, explaining that his passion to promote and protect the well-being of the world’s seafarers come from wanting societies all around the globe “to recognize the huge debt we owe to seafarers and the sacrifices of their families.”

Iswan is an organization that promotes and supports the welfare of seafarers all over the world by providing free services to a concerned individual and/or his family. Its 24-hour multilingual helpline, SeafarerHelp, is one of the direct welfare services provided to seafarers. Other assistance includes relief funds for seamen and their family members in need and a range of health information resources.

It also works with companies, unions, governments, welfare organizations, and ports for the implementation of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labor Convention 2006.

For more than 10 years of promoting seafarers’ welfare, Harris observed that the most common concern among merchant mariners is the unpaid wages. “While good companies pay on time, there are still those who either delay paying wages or, in extreme cases, don’t pay them at all. Of course, if a seafarer has not been paid for months, this will cause them a lot of stress as they usually have an extended family depending on them being paid on time,” he said.

A survey conducted by Marine Insight reveals that what usually troubles a seafarer are the increase in paperwork brought about by new laws and guidelines, onboard politics, social isolation, homesickness, piracy, reduced shore leaves, and stringent maritime laws. These concerns resulted to mental health issues among the seafarers, a strain that has seen a steady increase for the past five years according to Harris.

The worst concern that was ever endorsed to Iswan is the case of piracy where seafarers were held for long periods by Somali pirates. “The most extreme case has been that of the 29 seafarers of the FV Naham 3 who were held for four and half years by pirates in Somalia. Five of the crew were from the Philippines and three of the original crew died. The crew were held under very poor conditions and the owner did not pay the families of the seafarers while they were being held hostage,” Harris recalled.

The Omani-flagged fishing vessel was hijacked in March 26, 2012 roughly 65 nautical miles from Seychelles off East Africa. The crew consisted of members from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. They were the second longest held captives by Somali pirates next to the crew of FV Prantalay 12, which were held for five years.

As the manning agency that deployed the said Filipino crew was discovered to be illegal and was eventually shut down, Iswan stepped in to support the families and traumatized seafarers. The psychological scars incurred by the men during years of captivity and the sudden adjustments of their family were attended to by representatives of Iswan in the Philippines through medical checks and counselling.

Working with Filipino seafarers

Over a decade of providing welfare services to seafarers all over the world, Harris observed that most number of cases received by Iswan comes from Filipino and Indian seamen. This can be attributed to the fact that majority of the world’s seafarers hail from these countries.

Harris stated that most Filipinos seeking assistance from Iswan are commonly concerned with the lack of shipboard employment. This proves true especially for aging
seafarers who are turned away by manning agents who prefer younger and more agile crew. It is also evident with the ever-increasing number of new graduates who remain unemployed or underemployed due to lack of shipboard opportunities.

“This concern is closely followed by unpaid wages; these cases we often refer to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) or their affiliated unions upon the permission of the concerned seafarer,” Harris said adding that some of the crew’s dilemma occasionally stems from unjust practices of manning agents or shipping agencies.

“Where Iswan has issues with crewing agencies or shipping companies, we will normally contact the Flag State or the representative organization such as the International Chamber of Shipping. During cases of abandonment, we work in partnership with the unions and ship owner organizations as well as the regulatory bodies such as the International Maritime Organization or International Labor Organization,” he explained.

The Iswan executive director shared that his passion for fighting social injustices began in his teenage years when he was heavily involved in the campaign against apartheid or the racial segregation in South Africa.

“I was only a student when I started campaigning for social justice. When freedom finally came to South Africa in the mid-90s with the election of Nelson Mandela, I then became involved in fundraising for an HIV organization — the Terrence Higgins Trust,” Harris recalled. While there has already been a lot of progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS, he believes that there is still some way to go to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.

From being the head of fundraising for Concern Worldwide, an international charity fighting world poverty, Harris finally brought his passion for social justice in the maritime industry, saying that the sea has always interested him. “I almost signed up to go to sea as a cadet when I was 16,” he recalled. “I only decided against it as I did not want to be away from my family and friends.”

While Harris admitted that there was no tradition of seafarers in his family, he was inspired by his grandfather who worked on barges on the River Thames as a lighterman, a highly skilled worker who operates the unpowered flat-bottomed barges.

This appreciation for a sea-based job as well as to the generations of seamen all over the world led Harris to crusade for their welfare. “There is a lot of help available to our seafarers from a range of organizations including welfare bodies, unions, shipowners, and crewing agencies. Iswan offers help and support to any seafarers from all nations through our SeafarerHelp team at Our team is available 24 hours a day and they can speak the native languages of our seamen, to include the Filipinos,” he concluded.