Foreign-Flag Seafarers Report Declining Pay and Quality of Life

File image courtesy Clear Seas

Published Aug 7, 2023 7:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

Foreign-flag shipping is in need of more seafarers, according to leading industry associations, and the latest edition of the Seafarers' Happiness Index may contain clues to the cause. Based on the latest survey responses, the average quality of life and inflation-adjusted pay in foreign-flag shipping are less attractive than they were before the pandemic. Some of the reported work experiences that might violate the law in many countries, like arbitrary contract revisions, limited food and denial of access to drinking water.

In the latest index survey, happiness levels fell across all categories, driven by the persistence of the challenges of the pandemic era. COVID-19 may be over as a major public health concern, but some of the unpopular working policies that began as an adaptation to COVID are still in place. Cost-efficient extended work rotations have become the new normal, according to the survey, and seafarers are still on board for longer stints than they were before COVID.

"It seems that while employers reacted swiftly to pandemic pressure, a return to pre-pandemic standards has been slow. Standards of welfare and employment appear more prone to downward changes than upward progress, and that is a cause for much frustration," wrote the charity Mission to Seafarers, which administers the index.

Shore leave is still restricted by COVID precautions in many ports, seafarers reported. Some port authorities still tell foreign crewmembers that their docks are off-limits in order to prevent transmission, even though the pandemic has ended. This is impacting morale, as shore leave and travel were once among the attractions of the seagoing life, as well as a welcome relief after months on board. Some seafarers reported that they have never had shore leave in their career. 

Other shipboard-life concerns in the survey included familiar issues like increasing paperwork, disregard for hours of work and rest, and the isolation of life at sea. But there were some new and more troubling items on the list. Across categories, multiple respondents reported restrictions on access to drinking water while under way. This was "far from an isolated report," and the charity noted that it is a violation of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). Some of the survey takers reported that their employers would even charge them for clean water. 

Internet access also remains a common sticking point for many seafarers. Quality operators often offer internet for free, and crewmembers who have this benefit "were far happier across other aspects of their life and experience on board," the survey found. With broadband satellite connectivity now available from $250 per ship per month, inexpensive onboard internet is accessible even for less well-resourced shipping companies - but many seafarers report that access is only provided at an elevated cost, on the order of $60 per person per month. At the ILO minimum monthly salary of $670, this would be nearly a tenth of a deckhand's earnings.

In addtion, pay increases have fallen behind inflation, most respondents reported - even as workloads have increased. This could make the seafaring profession less competitive compared to shoreside employment options. One respondent reported that his company has not raised pay in 15 years. 

"Despite the impact of inflation, seafarers reported that there have been no salary raises comparable to those on shore," reported Mission to Seafarers. "As the cost of living continues to rise in many nations, seafarers expressed the urgent need for generous raises to maintain a fair standard of living."