Nautilus Telegraph - March 2014

Page 26

26 | telegraph | | March 2014


Updating seafarers’ welfare a

What’s the connection between a person under sail being issued with enough lemon juice to stop their teeth loosening with scurvy, and a modern seafarer being able to Skype home free whenever they’re off watch? Is there an enduring link between ensuring a barque crew will have enough raisins in the plum duff to gladden their hearts, and helping the team on a post-Panamax to access trauma counselling and get bridging loans following a piracy attack? Should everyone still have the legal right to desert an unseaworthy ship? The strand running through the conference, titled The Health and Welfare of Seafarers: Past, Present and Prospects, was whether there is a continuum between the needs of seafarers on 18th century vessels and those of today’s mariners. Over the space of three days 30 speakers shared knowledge of the past as well as ideas about the future. They included maritime historians, stakeholders who now provide support for seafarers, and experts on modern seafarers’ lives. Many brought knowledge from their direct experience as workers on the world’s oceans; they really knew about both whales and welfare. Session topics fruitfully jumped back and forth from Scandinavia and the US to China and Britain, from defensive navies to merchant services, from sail to steam, and from welfare providers to welfare recipients. The focus included what policies had developed, why, and what their impact was on seafarers and their wider societies. Adhering to Samuel Plimsoll’s line saved perhaps millions of lives. Could a similar international consensus on safety be created today? In a keynote speech, Helen Sampson, from the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University, pointed out that the problem was enduringly that if seafarers were out of sight they were (conveniently) out of mind. She offered an illuminating survey of what seafarers today were suffering from, explaining how stress builds up because of many ordinary small things like lack of control over light and noise. Alston Kennerley (University of Plymouth), a veteran historian of seafarers’ conditions, impressed everyone with his extensively researched outline of the scope of support for seafarers’ welfare and health.

Facilitator Richard Gorski Pictures: Jo Stanley

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Polina Baum-Talmor from Cardiff University said isolation is a major problem for seafarers

Maritime historians and crew care professionals took part in a conference at Hull University on the past, present and prospects of seafarer health and welfare. Dr JO STANLEY reports on the event…

Commodore Barry Bryant addresses the conference

writing was welcomed as a way to understand the real subjects. Veteran seafarers’ historian Alston Kennerley

He commented on what a ‘massive amount’ had been done by so many generous people over the centuries — and still continues to be done. At the plenary, speakers commented upon their realisation that the fundamentals of seafarers’ health and welfare had essentially changed very little. ‘Welfare’ was a term causing some speakers unhappiness. But what the word represents was also seen as intrinsically problematic. ‘Welfare has been the second-best option when health is too difficult to ensure’ — that was the useful definition from Dr Tim Carter (Norwegian Centre for Maritime Medicine, University of Bergen) . The seafaring labour force is still on the fringes of a society beset by sea blindness. Seafarers are still isolated and scattered. And their lives are still endangered, affirmed Martin Wilcox (Greenwich Maritime Institute). Richard Gorski, the conference facilitator, agreed ruefully that such ‘constants win out’ — again and again over time. Many nods greeted Tim Carter’s point that shipowners provide millions to high-profile wings at maritime museums. But what’s urgently needed is also just a few ordinary smackers for a disabled deckie’s physio sessions. Most interestingly throughout the conference, comparisons were made between the two navies. At one end, ex-RN Commodore Barry Bryant commented on the financial basis: that the Queen’s shillings were flung fairly readily at warships, because the point was ‘to fight and win.’ Money doesn’t come into such decision-making as it does in commercial shipping. So were RN seafarers normally better looked after? Most speakers thought so, for all that statistical problems made accurate comparison impossible. It might be imagined that modern developments necessarily bring improvements. But attendees pointed out that globalisation hasn’t removed obstacles to changing seafarers’ conditions. Instead it’s made them more complex to challenge. Seafarers’ own accounts of their conditions were clearly needed. Too often accounts come from above and can be patronising to the ‘object of study’. So the Marine Society’s initiative in encouraging memoir


Organiser Richard Gorski confided he’d feared in advance that the conference would simply ‘demonise the industry and cast seafarers as victims.’ That didn’t happen. But a consistent problem over the last few centuries has indeed been that seafarers were ‘othered’ in the minds of the public, including providers. Too often ‘Jack’ was seen as guileless, childlike (‘naturally deficient’ said Tomas Nilson of Gothenburg University), and a figure incapable of looking after himself. Many speakers argued that in fact seafarers were not so far different from land-dwellers. They did sometimes need special help. But they had agency,

Welfare was a term causing some speakers unhappiness… seen as intrinsically problematic.

had valuable transferrable skills and were very good at coping with periods of unemployment. Michael Quinlan from Sydney’s University of New South Wales number-crunched to demonstrate just how much informal dissent existed, and how much rebels were put down. Even though they might be legitimately protesting that their ship was unfit to sail, they were punished, not the owners. In the period 1790-1900 four-fifths of seamen convicted were jailed. Today would they even dare to resist? Who will help them now and in the future?


‘Donkey’s breakfast’ mattresses and ancient salt meat may be horrors of the past. But food and hygiene are still problems not being adequately

addressed on some ships, especially in the Chinese and Indian fleets. Helen Sampson (Cardiff University) pointed out that even under last year’s Maritime Labour Convention it’s still not mandatory to provide clean bedding. Several speakers focused on scurvy (now eradicated) and the quest for cures. Private treatments with herbs and remedies from home, as well as measures imposed by the Admiralty, had mixed effects. In today’s world a problem is lack of medical drills and senior officers who are under-confident in opening the medical chest. Historically there was a failure to offer healthy enough conditions and treatment to seafarers — especially ‘expendable’ merchant mariners. But there was also the — predictable — failure to present accurate data about the appalling situation. Past attempts at welfare included wellintentioned free treatment of seafarers with sexually transmitted diseases. But such special rights meant again that seafarers were cast as not only different to landspeople, but more linked to promiscuity, which further accentuated their status as a breed apart, argued Tim Carter. ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’ asked Thomas Nilson (Gothenburg University) as have thousands of concerned people before him. A problem was that seafarers were too often cast as people ’who can’t not be drunk’. This made them seem unlike most human beings and thereby heightened isolation.


Today’s young people are habituated to instant contact through texts. So they suffer when not able to access regular, cost-free and unsupervised internet contact with home, pointed out Helen Sampson. Unfortunately there was no historian there to underline this need for connection by discussing the joy of those under sail when family letters arrived once a year. Isolation is a major problem for seafarers, several speakers argued. But Polina Baum-Talmor (Cardiff University) refreshingly contended that to think of ships in sociologist Erving Goffman’s terms as ‘total institutions’ (like monasteries or jails) was to omit some complexity. This is perhaps a partial product of improved shipto-shore telecommunications. Geographically far from home and living in separate time zones, seafarers can ‘experience contradictory feelings of contained freedom.’ They can belong to what might be called ‘pretend families’ onboard. And of course they can still feel lonely. Sarah Simons (Cardiff University) argued that victims of piracy suffer an enduring legacy, which ripples into the seafarers’ worried families back home. It worsens as the duration of hostage-holding periods increases. She pointed out that seafarers are at the extreme end of a process that treats them as commodities. Action for seafarers’ health and welfare continues. It’s about justice and it’s also essential to the future of the maritime industry. And it’s better informed and less beset by moral strictures than in Victorian times. But is it — and will it be — more effective than all those past efforts investigated by this conference?

g Summaries of the papers can be read at:

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