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Putting the seafarer first

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Page context: Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 20 July 2005 > Putting the seafarer first

Efthimios E Mitropoulos, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organisation, explains why the human element is so important to the work of the IMO

There can be no doubt that shipping plays a pivotal role in underpinning international trade. It has always provided the only really cost-effective way to transport large quantities of raw materials, components, finished goods, fuel and foodstuffs over any great distance. Ships and the seafarers that man them therefore fulfil a vital role in today’s global economy.

That is why, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – the United Nations specialised agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships – places considerations of the human element at the centre of its work.

Issues of concern to seafarers such as stress, fatigue, workloads, training standards, safety, security and environmental protection are all of prime importance to the committees and sub-committees of the organisation. In the course of their work in developing international standards, the experts who serve on these committees take the “human element” into consideration, particularly when reviewing the adequacy of requirements and recommendations for the operation of ships and their equipment.

As an example, the simplification and standardisation of terminology in an international industry is a pre-requisite, and careful consideration is given to factors such as user-friendliness, safety of use, harmonisation of essential safety features and the need for clear, easily-understandable and up-to-date operating and technical manuals.

The importance of standards

Shipowners today clearly recognise the benefits to be gained from employing seafarers who are not only properly qualified but who also display the professional standards and technical competence needed to manage today’s ships safely and efficiently. That is why IMO’s revised Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), which is designed to make sure that the human resource available to the shipping industry meets the required standards, is one of the most important measures to be considered by IMO in recent years.

The STCW Convention, which underwent a complete revision in 1995 and has been updated with amendments since then, focuses on the demonstration of competence, not just the acquisition of knowledge. The implications of this have been significant for trainers and seafarers alike, and not least for the long-term impact the revised standards may have on the maritime casualty statistics, which continue to demonstrate an improving safety and environmental protection record for international shipping. Some of this improvement can be attributed to improved technology but, with statistics also suggesting that some 80 per cent of accidents are attributable in some way to human error, the improving record is a testimony to the skills and dedication of today’s seafarers.

Another major part of IMO’s work, which closely relates to the human element at sea, has been the introduction of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. As its name suggests, this mandatory code deals with management and, in particular, the responsibility of management to play a full and active part in building a safety culture onboard ship and within the company, to the benefit of all concerned. The code puts management squarely in the safety chain and, should something go wrong with the ship at sea, does not leave the Master as solely responsible but takes the issue as far as the boardroom.

Addressing seafarer shortage

Turning now to wider issues, in common with others involved in shipping today, IMO is deeply concerned about the widely reported upcoming shortage of seafarers. A number of international, regional and national research studies have highlighted the scale of the problem if action is not taken so it needs to be tackled before it reaches unmanageable proportions. In this regard, recent decisions in some parts of the world to criminalise inadvertent polluters will do little to encourage youngsters, when they are weighing up the pros and cons of the various career options before them, to choose shipping.

IMO has now taken up this matter, following a proposal that the organisation, in cooperation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), should consider the development of appropriate guidelines for the fair treatment of seafarers in such situations. This is a difficult issue but I believe it is a cause for optimism that, notwithstanding the complex and delicate nature of the subject, something positive is now being done to address it at the international level. The first session of the Joint IMO/ILO Ad Hoc Expert Working Group on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident met in January this year and agreed that guidelines should be adopted as soon as possible, in order to ensure that seafarers involved in a maritime accident are fairly treated and their rights are not violated. A draft resolution on this matter was agreed, for adoption by the IMO Assembly (which meets in November 2005) and the ILO Governing Body.

If the global pool of competent, properly qualified and efficient seafarers is to be increased, seafaring must be seen as a viable career choice for people of the right calibre. This clearly dictates that efforts should be made to ensure that the employment conditions for seafarers should be at least comparable with those found in other industries – particularly in view of the obvious impact that the quality of the shipping industry’s workforce has on safety at sea and protection of the marine environment.

I am convinced that, through a rigorous and well-orchestrated campaign, and through paying attention to the details of such issues as seafarers’ training, welfare, pay, conditions and so on, the attractiveness of seafaring as a profession, in what today has become a very competitive and international employment market, can be significantly enhanced.

Operating the complex ships of today is a skilled job at all levels, from Master to deck hand. It demands that seafarers really do possess the skills necessary to carry out the various functions for which they are certificated. A troubling complication in this regard is the incidence of fraudulent practices related to obtaining statutory certificates attesting competency. This is an extremely serious matter because people could be put in positions of responsibility that they are not capable of undertaking and, thereby, jeopardise the lives of others and the marine environment.

Clearly it is essential that certificates can be relied upon and that their validity can be verified. It is therefore imperative that these practices should be stamped out. Research undertaken by IMO has highlighted the issues involved and action has been taken by the relevant IMO sub-committee through a series of circulars giving appropriate guidance to training institutes, maritime administrations and shipowners. But seafarers themselves have a role to play too and are encouraged to take whatever steps are necessary to draw to the attention of the authorities any instances of fraudulent certification which come to their attention.

Strengthening security, protecting rights

At IMO, we have, regrettably, had to join other UN organisations in strengthening our existing measures to address the issue of maritime security following the recent terrorist incidents around the world, foreshadowed by the September 11th attacks in the US. Part of the guiding philosophy has been to create specific responsibilities on ships, in companies and ashore in ports, a chain of accountability and, through training, to ensure that all concerned have the appropriate skills they need to fulfil the responsibilities with which they have been entrusted. Seafarers have a central role in maritime security measures, which entered into force on 1 July 2004.

In implementing the new security regime it was important to balance the needs of security with the needs of facilitating maritime trade. IMO was also concerned to ensure the correct balance between tightening security provisions so that criminals and terrorists cannot gain access to ships and ports by posing as seafarers, while ensuring that innocent seafarers are not themselves unfairly penalised as a result – for example, by denying them shore leave.

Shipping relies heavily on the initiatives, co-operation and constant vigilance of seafarers to help prevent breaches of maritime security and, without their support and wholehearted commitment, the system the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code aims to put in place will be severely weakened. It is crucial, therefore, that seafarers are not made to feel that their services are not sufficiently recognised.

Fast turnaround times mean port stays are short these days and the pressure on seafarers is growing all the time. For the sake of safety and efficiency, as well as for the security aspect, they need adequate opportunity to relax and recover before they take their ships out to sea again in pursuit of their peaceful objectives in the service of world trade. Their opportunities for shore leave should, therefore, not be unnecessarily restricted.

Thanks to the efforts of IMO and others, ships are now designed, built, equipped, operated and manned to standards more exacting than ever before. Nevertheless, every year too many seafarers are either injured or lose their lives in maritime accidents. More often than not, their injuries and deaths go largely unrecorded and are soon forgotten by all but close friends and families.

To mark the 50th anniversary of IMO in 1998, a trust fund dedicated to seafarers was inaugurated – generously supported by the ITF. The fund has been used, among other things, to create a permanent memorial to seafarers at IMO headquarters, which acts as a constant reminder of the important role they play and of what the work of the organisation is really all about. In pursuing our mission statement of “Safe, secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans”, we never forget that achieving such objectives would be simply impossible without the vital contribution of the seafarer.

Section home:
Issue 20 July 2005

Other pages for Issue 20 July 2005:
Comment: Fighting Back and Winning | ITF launches new global website | Value for money | Protecting our waterfront | The fight for true democracy | Enter the hit squads | This is why we joined a union | Transport goes transnational | From wellhead to wheel | Competition gone mad | Driving change in Kurdistan | End this railway nightmare | We can help to defeat poverty | Readers’ thoughts on poverty | Working life

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