Sanctuary for seafarers
Ports need to balance commercial realties against funding seafarer welfare. Alex Hughes reports
Too many ports worldwide are extremely shy about discussing the facilities that they provide for seafarers. This could be because, as Peter Tomlin, chief executive of the UK’s Merchant Navy Welfare Board, and his predecessor Capt David Parsons note, very few ports actually have an ongoing budget to provide facilities specifically for seafarers.
However, there are a smattering that support a levy scheme and/or make regular lump sum payments.
Further, sometimes, to help out, ports will lease a site, or a property, at a peppercorn rent for a seafarers’ centre. And while some levy schemes are aimed entirely at centres, others also support chaplaincy services.
That said, as Capt Parsons points out, “in no cases that I am aware of are levies, or regular lump sum payments donations, aligned with the real costs of providing welfare services. They are simply treated as donations, leaving societies such as Mission to Seafarers, Apostleship of the Sea, Sailors' Society, and so on, to make up the balance.” Capt Parsons recently carried out a review of UK seafarers' centres.
Additionally, port funding, he adds, will never realistically meet the entire costs of welfare provision in port since many view the welfare of seafarers as being the shipowners’ responsibility. There are, however, exceptions.
In the UK, DP World’s London Gateway port provides and maintains its equivalent of a small centre, even though it does not have a levy scheme in place. Visiting seafarers are also permitted to use some of its ports’ shoreside facilities and it works closely with the London Tilbury Seafarers' Centre, which provides regular ship welfare visits with specially trained personnel.
Other examples are The Victoria Group, which provides centres in both Seaham and Sharpness in the UK, as do Peel Ports at Eastham, and ABP at Ipswich also in the UK, although each of those was furbished via grants. Some other centres are leasehold land on peppercorn rents, where often port maintenance staff will cover basic repairs and inspections.
“I think maritime charities have an important, impartial role to play in seafarers’ welfare. Although they continually struggle to raise funds to support their work, I feel that it should remain their responsibility, as stakeholders, to support at least some of the costs of their port chaplains, other staff and volunteers,” says Capt Parsons.
He does see both direct and indirect benefits from facilities being available.
“Above all, they enable seafarers to have access to a safe environment, where they can communicate with home, relax and recuperate away from the ship, access pastoral and other support, even purchase the necessary basics,” he says, adding that reliable transport to and from facilities in the adjacent community is an essential component of welfare services and should also be included in that. “Both will reduce the likelihood of accidents and of crew missing their ships, which may be unable to sail without key personnel.”
He also stresses the utmost importance of crew being able to access family, friends or even their employer, since seafarers with unresolved issues may reduce the efficiency and even safety of a vessel.
“Both in humanitarian terms and for commercial reasons there are sound reasons for enabling access to impartial welfare providers who can often either diffuse or find a resolution to an issue.”
Port “communities”, he adds, are the host for visiting seafarers and therefore have a joint “corporate social responsibility” for these people.
“The port authorities themselves should, I believe, take a lead role (they have the greatest leverage), but also involve shipping agents and statutory authorities,” he says.
Finally, seafarers play an integral role in cargo operations, which can take many hours or, in some cases, days to complete. Ports have a duty of care for seafarers transiting their estate and need to help ensure that fatigue is avoided. So there are very real benefits from providing support; it shouldn’t simply be seen as yet another cost, he says.
Moreover, on occasions, issues are raised in confidence with welfare “practitioners” that are resolved without the master, port authority, or ship’s agent being aware. Without these “practitioners”, one or more of these three would probably have to deal with the matter.
“This could certainly impair the efficiency of the ship, possibly have health and safety implications and even delay a vessel’s departure,” says Mr Tomlin.
Harbour master help
Much of the push for enhanced facilities for seafarers has come from those harbour masters or port managers who have experienced life at sea. However, ports are commercial undertakings and their management boards invariably consist largely of people with no first-hand understanding of seafarers or experience of life at sea. This latter group understands its duty of care to its own employees, but sees no reason to extend this to seafarers who they see as the responsibility of shipowners.
“They often see seafarers in the same way as they do other transport workers such as truck and train drivers. They do not realise that they are usually isolated for months on end and unable to access what personnel working ashore take for granted on a daily basis. I believe there is a process of education that needs to be in place so that management boards of ports are better informed about the unique situation of seafarers and the need and benefits of supporting their welfare,” says Mr Tomlin.
According to Capt Parsons, the implementation of a levy on top of all port charges is negligible, stressing that no shipowner, or charterer would divert a vessel for the sake of £20 to £50 on top of many thousands of pounds a call costs. A small levy/donation of this nature would support the work of the maritime charities and provide outstanding value for money, he adds.
In respect of where facilities should be located, Mr Tomlin says there can be no hard and fast rules when it comes to a centre/or facilities being inside or outside the port. The best answer usually has a great deal to do with the geography of the port and its location in relation to berths/terminals and local shops, and often takes into consideration the socio-political situation.
As to whether shipping companies are influenced by the provision of onshore facilities for staff when choosing to call at one port over another, both Mr Tomlin and Capt Parsons agree that the short answer is that they are not. Shipping companies will always, quite understandably, use the most commercially viable port and day-to-day crew welfare is not that high on their agenda. Notwithstanding, ports will be aware that the overall quality of service provided to their shipowner customers will always be taken into consideration.
THE VALUE OF A PORT CALL LEVY
The UK’s Port of Tyne set up the Port of Tyne Welfare Levy in 2016 to create funding to support three local charities that provide welfare support for seafarers on the Tyne. Over 100,000 seafarers arrive at the port each year and the purpose of the welfare fund was to provide a reasonable level of support to these mariners, many of whom could find themselves at sea for up to nine months at a time.
The welfare fund allows shipping lines to pay a voluntary levy each time one of their vessels come into port, with the Port of Tyne contributing 50p for every £1 collected. The optional levy is based on a vessel's gross tonnage and ranges from £20 to £30 per ship, payable on the vessel's first ten visits to the port each calendar year.
Last year, the fund raised £10,000, which was transferred to the Merchant Navy Welfare Board for dispersal to projects that the three charities support to help seafarers.
The Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) is now hoping to set up similar schemes in other UK ports.
According to the MNWB’s Peter Tomlin: "The scheme introduced by the Port of Tyne will make a tangible difference to local charities in Tyneside that work hard to support seafarers in need." In addition, the welfare fund will further enable visits to ships, legal support, translation and communication support, counselling, transport and emergency care.
For its part, Lyttelton Port of Christchurch in New Zealand provides annual funding towards the operational costs of the Lyttelton Seafarers’ Centre. The Centre reopened in Lyttelton in 2015, providing a safe place for visiting seafarers to relax when in Port.
The Centre provides free internet access so seafarers can contact home, and purchase foreign exchange, food and drink. It also provides counselling and emotional support for those who need it.
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