The importance of breaking down the barriers between your shore-based teams and your seafarers, understanding what seafarer inclusion and belonging means within a shipping company, and building a diverse, inclusive culture onboard that supports all your seafarers.
If the past two years have taught us anything as an industry, it is that our seafarers bear the brunt of the hardships faced by our industry. From the Covid pandemic to the Ukraine conflict – and a host of other issues – they are on the frontline of the operational challenges that we all grapple with.
The experiences of seafarers can also be contrasted with those working on shore. This also exposes the limits of where good intentions meets the realities of life at sea. For example, the toolbox of solutions to the Covid pandemic was far slimmer when it came to our seafarers. Home working and the relative ease of vaccine access made life far safer for those of us working onshore. Similarly, closed borders and travels bans may not have affected many of us already at home, but the results were devastating for seafarers unable to join their vessel or return home at the end of their contract.
This highlights the gulf that often exists between shipping’s shoreside and seafaring communities. Of course, we need to take account of the very different living and working circumstances of those at sea. But there is still an opportunity to act in other areas where we can close the gap between how we treat our colleagues and teams on shore and at sea.
One area where this is certainly true is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
Why should the same fundamental issues around DEI be any less applicable at sea than at shore? Yet when it comes to inclusion, our shoreside and seafaring teams are often siloed from one another. This is a blind spot for the industry; even when we gather to discuss seafarer issues, they are rarely in the room.
A growing number of organisations are proactively working to change this, including some of our DSG members. We are working with them to better understand and address what seafarer inclusion and belonging means within a shipping company, to use data to identify the main challenges and barriers this community faces, and to identify practical ways to facilitate improvements. Through this, not only can organisations offer an improved working environment, they can also mitigate the safety risks posed if individuals do not feel able to speak up, and they can improve talent attraction and retention rates.
We recently worked with one of our members on a seafarer engagement survey, as part of this shipowner’s efforts to build a culture of belonging with their seafarer community. This survey has already seen an impressive engagement rate of over 70%, which reflects the desire to have a voice and share their views. This is a promising start that will help this organisation to build trust with their seafarers. Regular communication and meaningful action will be key to making a success of the next steps.
To date, when the industry has looked at diversity at sea, it is nearly always based on gender. At present, 98% of the seafaring workforce is male, and although there have been some fantastic initiatives to encourage more women to pursue careers at sea, there is a risk – and a missed opportunity – if we put all our energies into 2% of our seafaring workforce.
The better approach is to take a step back and look at the challenges facing 100% of the crew. How do we put the building blocks in place for a more inclusive culture and environment on board that supports all crew by recognising other cultural challenges? This includes gender, but should go further, including nationality and hierarchy.
This should matter to every shipping company and not from an altruistic perspective. If cultural issues onboard your vessels impair relationships and communication between crewmates, it could threaten not only vessel performance standards, but also health and safety standards, posing a risk to human life and vessel safety.
We also need to think about the age profile onboard and the needs of seafarers of different generations. We know the challenges that shipping companies face in attracting and retaining seafarers. Today, younger cadets of a different generation will have significantly different expectations compared to older seafarers when it comes to DEI issues, so these generational challenges also need to be considered.
The good news is that we are not starting from scratch. Ship owners and ship managers now recognise the need to address this challenge, following on from the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, but also wider concerns about life at sea, which span such serious issues as sexual harassment and bullying on board, through to poor living conditions, lack of shore leave and limited ship-shore connectivity – as well as a dwindling seafaring population.
This starts by listening to our seafarers and understanding their experiences. On 18th May, to mark the IMO’s International Day for Women in Maritime, we will be conducting a live online interview with Koni Duniya, the Founder and President of the Female Seafarers Association of Nigeria (FESAN). Koni is a passionate advocate for the seafaring community and the challenges faced by female seafarers. See below for details on how register.
The solutions for extending DEI strategies to include seafarers are never one-size-fits-all, but we can learn a lot by sharing experiences of what has worked well and understand how the right lessons can be applied to create an inclusive working culture that spans sea and shore.
To register for our live interview with Koni Duniya, Founder/President of FESAN, taking place via Zoom on Wednesday 18th May from 1100-1200 BST, click here: