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Will seafarers be on the agenda?

Will seafarers be on the agenda?
January 17, 2024

Dr Carolyn Graham from Caribbean Maritime University questions what will be the priorities of the new IMO secretary-general.

Although the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a secretariat, it does contribute to the agenda setting of the industry, which I have come to observe, seems to reflect the leadership. As the new IMO secretary-general takes office, effective January 1, my thoughts turn to seafarers and what place they hold in Arsenio Dominguez’s heart.

In recent history, the most emphasis I have seen placed on seafarers’ issues was while William O’Neil, a seafarer at heart, wassecretary-general from 1990 to 2003. Of course, this also had to do with what was happening generally, and the focus at that time was safety of shipping. O’Neil oversaw improvements in safety regulations, and the education and training of seafarers’ standards as key elements in addressing the human element in shipping. Importantly, the landmark International Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention (ISM Code) was introduced. Granted, there is much that is not right with its practice, but the principle of shore management’s role in safety of ships is a sound one. The industry has embraced the notion that the human element is complex and multidimensional and seafarers alone onboard are not responsible for safety (and health).

It was also under O’Neil’s leadership that the monument to seafarers lost at sea was built at the front of the IMO. Monuments matter. While some may think it does not help the seafarers struggling at sea, it stands as a testament to seafarers’ contribution to global trade and economy and a reminder to those on land of the sacrifices seafarers make in maintaining supply chains. The monument helps to make seafarers visible, even if it is just to those who visit or live in that part of the world and those who have reasons to go to the IMO.

Another secretary-general who helped to advance the cause of seafarers and contributed to their visibility, was Efthymios Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos was a seafarer and understood their plight. Under his leadership, the human element agenda was advanced with a second revision to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978, as amended (The Manila Amendments) where the ‘soft skills’ were made mandatory. This solidified the realisation that the technical alone is not sufficient to ensure safety at sea.

Additionally, it was under his leadership that the Day of the Seafarer was established. The themes for World Maritime Day for some time, also focused on issues of concern for seafarers’ safety and health.

Gradually, with increasing environmental concerns and climate change issues, the general focus of the industry shifted. Although the last three years have seen increased focus on seafarers, their mental health and conditions of work, this was due to the covid pandemic and a humanitarian crisis for seafarers, rather than a deliberate pre-emptive effort by the IMO to fulsomely address the welfare of seafarers.

As the new year begins with new leadership, it will be interesting to see the IMO’s focus as it relates to seafarers. One would expect the continuation of the environment and technology agenda with the pursuit of green shipping through decarbonisation and what that entails including the search for cleaner fuels and alternate propulsion systems and ship design. Perhaps the gender and diversity agenda will see a continuation of some of those discussions having to do with bullying and harassment on board. Certainly, the mental health of seafarers has gained much traction.

It is the hope that much more is made of these themes and that discussions of seafarers’ occupational safety and health (OSH) take a prominent place on the agenda. The time is right to translate some of the sentiments expressed about the value of seafarers into action.

The pandemic revealed major gaps in the governance regime for seafarers’ OSH, but, with the “return to normal,” it appears that the world has moved on. In a previous article in Splash, I brought up the matter of seafarers’ facilitation as a permanent fix to one of the concerns – seafarers crossing borders and accessing shore for respite, medical attention or to be repatriated or join a vessel. The seafarers’ identity document convention and the facilitation convention can be looked at and promoted on the IMO’s agenda. Also, issues of geopolitics and wars, upsurge in piracy, maritime education and training, rising costs to shipowners due to the decarbonisation agenda, will all affect seafarers. How will these be treated in respect of their safety, health and wellbeing?

I look to see where this new secretary-general’s sentiments lie in respect of these concerns and the challenges seafarers face, by his rhetoric and activities coming out of the IMO.