Addressing Needs of Seafarers

The Mission to Seafarers Centre in Wickham cares for thousands of the seafarers who enter the Port of Newcastle every year. Rick McCosker, Port Chaplain for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, reflects on the recent seafarer deaths at sea and the many challenges the often-forgotten seafarers face.

“Man overboard! ” – a chilling sound for all seafarers. Imagine you are on a cargo vessel in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from land. Your vessel that seemed so large untill that moment is suddenly insignificant in such a vast expanse of water. The reality is that there is very little chance of a person being located if the time that has elapsed since the disappearance is not known. More especially if it’s night and the sea is inky blackness. The vessel is required to make an attempt to locate the seafarer but, due to its size, many valuable minutes are lost in turning the vessel around and retracking its course.

The Australian Seafarers’ Welfare Council has reported at least five MOB (man overboard) cases since 1 October 2014 – two were luckily rescued while the remaining three have been listed as suicide or ‘circumstances unknown’.

The latest MOB incident occurred on the vessel “K Pride” en route from its Asian port to Newcastle to collect its cargo of coal. At our Mission Centre we were advised of the incident by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority just prior to the vessel berthing at the Mayfield coal terminal. We had not been made privy to details, only that circumstances were unknown. After the Federal Police and various authorities had left the vessel we boarded with the hope that we would be able to provide some comfort to the crew members. Not unexpectedly, we sensed an air of tension during our conversation with two Korean officers and a brief meeting with the captain. The officers were friendly enough, but we were discouraged from talking to any crew members as they were all resting in their quarters. We need to exercise caution in situations such as these, particularly where there is a mixed crew with differing cultures and classes.

Later in the evening the captain did allow some officers and crew to come ashore and we were able to help them purchase their provisions for the return voyage. However, we were not given the opportunity for any private conversation, leaving us to wonder about their mental and spiritual state as they departed our shores for 18 days at sea to their next destination – life must go on!

What is it that triggers these incidents? Why do seafarers take such drastic action? In April 2015, the Crewtoo Seafarers Happiness Index was released. Of 687 seafarers surveyed, 11% were captains, and more than 50 nationalities were included. The respondents were asked ten questions relating to seafarer welfare and conditions both on board and ashore. The overall index was 6.4 out of ten, the lowest index related to access to shore leave and welfare ashore. To us at the Mission to Seafarers, this indicates the importance of exercising every opportunity to collect them from their vessels and bring them to our Centre where they can communicate with their families, shop or just be par t of a different community of people.

Other issues include crewing levels, the possibility of piracy, cyber attacks, bullying, language and cultural differences. In isolation, these are not major problems, but collectively they affect the life of each seafarer.

Australia is a signatory to the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention. The Convention is having a dramatic effect on addressing seafarers’ complaints. It is also having a significant impact in developing a culture of co-operation between port states and the various welfare authorities which should lead to better work and living conditions for seafarers over time. An administration offering ship registration is referred to as the ‘flag state’. Flag states maintain the responsibilities and obligations imposed upon them by international conventions for ships flying their flag. The flag state must ensure that these ships comply with the conventions. However, difficulties arise when a vessel is owned in one country and flies the flag of another.

Ships can, and often do, move from one country/registry/flag to another during the course of their operations. Under international law the flag state is the government that has authority and responsibility for regulating ships, and the conditions on board the ships that fly its flag, no matter where they travel in the world.

The specific responsibilities of flag states are set out in the many maritime conventions adopted by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). These relate to inspection and, in some cases, certification, that a ship and its operations (including conditions for seafarers) meet agreed international standards.

Flag state responsibilities with respect to IMO conventions are usually carried out by the government department responsible for maritime administrations.

With respect to regulation of working and living conditions on ships, the situation may differ from country to country. In some cases this may be administered by the government department responsible for labour or it may be a combination of departments.

What this means for seafarers is that ship owners are able to manipulate the industry to get the cheapest labour and provide poor work conditions for seafarers in a bid to save money – at the expense of seafarers’ living conditions and safety.

Most seafarers tell us they are locked into this lifestyle of danger and loneliness as a means to provide for their families back home.

This is why we, at the Mission to Seafarers, do what we do, every day of the year.

The Mission to Seafarers Centre was recently voted as one of the top five in the world and was the only Australian centre within that top five at the International Seafarers’ Welfare Assistance Network Awards in the category of Seafarer Centre of the Year. The Centre is always in need of volunteers and supplies. You can contact the Centre on 4961 5007.

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Rick McCosker

Rick McCosker is the Port Chaplain for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a former Test cricketer for Australia.

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