“Poor working conditions cannot and should not be a competitive advantage”

Out of sight, out of mind

5 June 2023 – Wilhelmsen Ship Management CEO, Carl Schou, opened the event, taking place at the Wilhelmsen tent set up at Aker Brygge during Nor-Shipping. He emphasised that the challenges of seafarer welfare are not new nor are they unsolvable – in fact, we know what the solutions are, from adequate rest periods, to internet access, to recreational facilities on board. In a sector already dealing with an emerging labour shortage, making seafaring an attractive career is crucial. However, the needs of seafarers are not being responded to despite the solutions being clear.

This is a collective challenge that requires collective solutions. Schou pointed to the Delivering on seafarers’ rights Code of Conduct, which identifies some of the key pain points for seafarers as a sign of progress. Additionally, going beyond current regulation and towards an equitable workplace is the right thing to do to, make seafaring attractive now and in the future – acknowledging the crucial role seafarers play in the global economy.

Wilhelmsen Ship Management CEO, Carl Schou Image credit: Wilhelmsen Ship Management

Jostein Hole Kobbelvedt, CEO of the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, pointed to the progress shipping is making on emissions reduction and the need to ensure that the transition is just, considering the rights and needs of workers across shipping.

“I look forward to the day where self-assessments are not voluntary but mandatory”

Verification and transparency

SSI Executive Director, Andrew Stephens, noted that the Delivering on seafarers’ rights Code of Conduct and self-assessment are the start of a journey to lasting change to the relationship between shipowner and charterer. In creating new norms for the industry, evidence requirements and tracking progress are key to showing that change is happening.

Since the Code of Conduct and self-assessment questionnaire were launched in October 2021, a total of 252 companies have completed their self-assessments covering a total of 6,609 vessels (data up to 23 April 2023). The next step is to build transparency into the process, as data is essential to assessing the current state of affairs for seafarers as well as any progress taking place in the future. In addition to this, assurance will be needed if the data is to be trusted and used within supply chain due diligence processes, as well as for seafarers’ own employment and career choices.

Image credit: Wilhelmsen Ship Management

On stage, a panel of speakers discussed the topic of verification and transparency, emphasising:

  • We don’t need to do this alone. Shipping can learn from other sectors that have tackled similar human and labour rights issues.
  • Poor working conditions cannot and should not be a competitive advantage.
  • Regulation is rapidly changing the landscape, with the Norwegian Transparency Act and the EU Corporate Due Diligence Directive changing the way manning agencies operate.
  • Every actor has a role to play: from financial stakeholders who can exert their leverage to drive positive developments, to flag states who can set new norms and port states (as well as ports themselves) who can strengthen enforcement.
  • Ship managers in particular play a crucial role, as they are responsible for creating a safe workplace and healthy organisational culture, working directly with seafarers to build awareness of their rights, and addressing issues quickly and effectively, building trust with seafarers that their rights will be respected.

Recruitment fees

Jostein Kobbelvedt moderated a panel on the issue of recruitment fees, following research published by IHRB and SSI in April 2023 which found almost 40% of those responding had experienced some form of unethical or illegal action, and of those, 70% reported having been asked to pay recruitment fees to manning agents to secure a job or have found that job offers were fake after making payments.

However, recruitment fees can take many forms, both cash and non-cash related, e.g., securing visas, permits, training certificates, etc. Debt bondage, in turn, increases the risk of forced labour and restriction of movement (through e.g., withholding travel documents). The issue has been documented across the maritime value chain and associated sectors, including shipbuilding and offshore platforms, among others.

Under the employer pays principle, workers such as seafarers should not be asked to pay at any stage of the recruitment process. However, current practices are very ingrained, and change needs to happen at all stages. The panel agreed:

  • Transparency on recruitment processes is needed, as well as sharing learnings widely so others can benefit from them, both within and across sectors.
  • Country-specific progress and learnings are needed, as well as national legislation to push for progress at the source.
  • Education and awareness are still needed at the seafarer level, as in some cases recruitment fees are known, but not recognised as illegal. A cultural shift, where there is widespread understanding of what is and is not acceptable, needs to happen.
  • Acknowledging the problem of recruitment fees and working to address it transparently can help raise awareness and understanding of the issue as well as progress being made.

Ultimately, seafaring provides an income, and as one of the panellists pointed out: “when you are the sole breadwinner in the family you will pay to be able to go onboard”. Change, therefore, needs to happen at all levels – from the shipowner and operator to the manning agency, to the training or educational institution, to the seafarers themselves.

Image credit: Wilhelmsen Ship Management

For more information on recruitment fees in shipping: