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Q&A with ISWAN

'Promoting & supporting the welfare of seafarers...'

At Seastainable we know that sustainability isn't just about the environment, we want to also focus on crew, so this week we spoke to ISWAN about their work promoting the welfare and wellbeing of seafarers globally.

Could you explain a bit more about ISWAN and how and why your organisation began?

In 2013 the seafarers’ welfare charities ISAN and ICSW merged to become ISWAN – a charity which promotes the welfare and wellbeing of seafarers globally. We recognise how the complexities of living and working at sea can leave seafarers vulnerable to a number of issues. As well as operating direct 24-hour services for seafarers we also run a number of projects and campaigns in support of seafarers' welfare.

At Seastainable we recognise that the sustainability within the industry isn’t just dependent on environmental issues but also social, your work promotes crew welfare, could you explain the types of issues that you are helping crew with throughout your organisation?

Seafarers working across all sectors face numerous issues and so we are working to make improvements in many different areas. Some of the top issues we see across the maritime industry are unpaid wages, contractual issues, problems with repatriation, bullying and harassment and health issues. There are also a number of sector-specific challenges. For instance we support many merchant seafarers affected by abandonment, piracy or poor treatment by unscrupulous manning agencies, whereas in the superyacht industry we might see a higher number of issues related to crew conflict, discrimination or drug and alcohol abuse.

You have recently launched the Yacht Crew Help initiative, allowing yacht crew to access 24 hour support, we would love to hear more about this new initiative and how it is helping yacht crew worldwide?

We became aware in 2018 that our expertise about the superyacht sector wasn’t as strong as it could be and so we partnered with MHG Insurance Brokers to run some research on the welfare needs of superyacht crew. The findings really highlighted some gaps in accessible support for superyacht crew, and many of the recommendations in the research report centred around the need for mental health services. We reviewed our resources and the assistance we currently provide for seafarers, and while much of this is valuable to superyacht crew, we realised there were some major barriers to crew accessing our support. It became clear that in order to reach as many superyacht crew as possible, it would be necessary to develop a platform and resources specifically tailored for them. We subsequently launched Yacht Crew Help in November in order to provide 24-hour emotional support and practical guidance for crew struggling, whatever their problem, wherever they are in the world.

Our helpline team includes qualified counsellors, and helpline officers trained in providing emotional support, counselling skills and suicide risk assessment. We have a strong network of counsellors and psychologists should crew be in need of longer term help. It’s a very new service but we’re determined to ensure the platform provides as many useful resources as possible for superyacht crew and addresses a range of challenges.

What are your thoughts on how the global pandemic has impacted crew welfare across the globe? You have supported a lot of crew throughout this time, what are some of the issues you have seen crew face and how have you helped relieve some of this for crew?

The pandemic has caused a whole host of issues for seafarers working on every vessel type. We saw a threefold increase in the number of cases we were dealing with on our helplines during the middle of 2020 and we’re still working at an increased level now. We are still hearing from crew who haven’t been able to leave their vessel as planned and are exhausted, and crew who have suddenly become unemployed and are extremely worried about money. We’ve been dealing with seafarers who are very anxious about their families back home and those who have faced tremendous difficulties trying to reach home.

During this time we’ve found our instantly accessible support has been invaluable to crew. We’ve been there to listen and talk through the specific worries of each seafarer or their family member contacting us; in some cases, seafarers had little communication with their shore-side teams and felt very anxious about how or when they would get home. We have also been assisting crew with repatriation, especially in emergencies when there is a loved one in need back home. With so many crew struggling financially, we’ve also been able to provide emergency grants to cover rent and medical bills where necessary.

Could you give some ways in which senior crew and heads of departments can ensure that they are running the yacht to ensure a high level of crew welfare and low crew turnover is maintained on board at all times and therefore fundamentally contribute towards improving social sustainability within the industry?

Alongside having robust policies and procedures in place for promoting wellbeing on board, it’s really important to give crew the opportunity to feedback on any aspect of their work or living conditions that they find challenging. Crew need to be able to trust they can be open and honest about any difficulties. In turn, there must be the right structures in place to address concerns appropriately. Ideally all crew should receive training in mental health awareness, but it’s particularly important that anyone with responsibility for crew has a deep understanding of how to recognise someone might be struggling and that they know how to respond appropriately. Crew should also have access to resources and facilities which mean they take care of their own health as much as possible and seek confidential support should they need it.

Overall it’s essential senior crew have the right skills to create an environment with high standards of welfare and one which is conducive to good mental health. Working together with welfare organisations and unions can help management strengthen policies and demonstrate to crew that their wellbeing is a priority.

We have recently released some guidance which aims to help management and owners improve their mental health policies on board. It’s available here.

Thanks to ISWAN for their time, to find out more about their work and guidance, check out their website

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