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May 24, 2016updated 10 Mar 2022 1:53pm

Changing behaviour: shipping confronts onboard bullying and harassment

Working away from the everyday support networks we take for granted places a great deal of strain on the well-being of seafarers. The situation is compounded by the threat of bullying and harassment, but just how bad is it?

By Gary Peters

Isolation is an inherent part of shipping. Weeks and months away from family and friends can present a multitude of problems, just one of which is the threat of bullying from fellow crew members.

“Without doubt the culture on merchant vessels is preferable to that of ten years ago but there is still room for improvement,” says Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). It is wrong to say that bullying is rife – indeed Shaw believes it is “not that common” – but there are concerns that there is a degree of under-reporting, which left unchallenged could have dreadful consequences.

The most recent industry guidelines on the topic have been developed by the ICS and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Recognising that any form of harassment and bullying can have serious consequences, the document, entitled Guidance on Eliminating Shipboard Harassment and Bullying, lists a series of recommendations, from implementing a company policy to understanding the threats posed by cyber bullying. It is hoped they will be incorporated in the guidance section of the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention in June.

The guidelines are not all things to all men; rather they act as reference points for shipowners and seafarers. “If you impose a one size-fits-all [approach] on an entire industry, they will rail against it,” says Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson, who was one of the main representatives for the ITF during the development.

“Those at the very top of companies should make it very clear where he or she stands on issues of harassment and bullying, that it is unacceptable behaviour. That should set the tone for the whole thing.”

How bad is it? Understanding the situation

The guidance represents the newest step of a process that started back in 1999, when Nautilus International, then known as NUMAST, ran a survey of its women members in the UK. Despite only receiving a response rate of approximately 13%, the results produced some worrying statistics – 76% said they had suffered sexual harassment at sea, while almost half said they had been discriminated against because of their gender.

Sensing the need for action, Dickinson and his colleagues – with help from the ICS – developed a workbook and training video, first for the UK and later in a European context. But when tragedy struck in 2010, it forced the industry to ask some soul-searching and necessary questions.

“Those at the very top should make it very clear where they stand on these issues.”

While working on the British-flagged Safmarine Kariba, Akhona Geveza, a South African cadet, disappeared in Croatian waters. Her body was later found and a Croatian police report into the incident concluded that she had taken her own life. “There were allegations of abuse and she was called to a meeting by the master of the vessel to discuss allegations regarding her treatment onboard, but she never turned up,” says Dickinson.

As union members asked questions about what could be done, Nautilus conducted another survey in 2010, this time including all members, men and women, and representing UK and Dutch seafarers. Approximately 43% answered ‘yes’ to the question: in the last five years, have you personally experienced any form of bullying, discrimination or harassment in the workplace? Of those who had suffered bullying, discrimination or harassment, a huge 79% admitted it had affected morale or performance. Meanwhile, of those who reported experiencing sexual harassment, two thirds were women and a third were men.

So, are women more at risk? “We have anecdotal evidence that suggests women may be more at risk,” says Caitlin Vaughan of The International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). “Discrimination is often an issue for women seafarers. Many have reported difficulty in finding a job in the first place. If they do get a job – especially in a senior position – there can be discrimination.”

Shaw is more cautious: “We do know of cases of same sex bullying as well.” It is also true, she adds, that there has been some degree of bullying for as long as ships have been written about, so the issue is not new. What is new “is the focus we are putting on trying to resolve this at an international level”. The guidelines are being distributed, for free, throughout the industry via shipowner associations and union groups, while training videos are available on YouTube.

The effects on mental health

What should be taken into consideration is the level of under-reporting. Dickinson describes how, with the 1999 and 2010 surveys, he felt there was significant under-reporting. “In fact, the people who answered those surveys have said that,” he adds.

This view is shared by Vaughan. In 2015, ISWAN had a total of 2,340 cases, of which 101 directly related to bullying and/or harassment. That number doesn’t tell the full story.

“There are other psychological issues that are reported that could very well be related to abuse or bullying, or bullying or harassment,” she says. “The other thing to remember is that sometimes we have seafarers who phone us with a number of issues. Bullying may well be one of them but it is not high up on their list of priorities such as non-payment of wages. However, it doesn’t mean they are not experiencing it.”

Fear of being labelled a troublemaker and the damage this could do to future career prospects is just one sample response provided to Nautilus as a reason for non-reporting. The problem is exacerbated by complicated complaint procedures – something the guidelines aim to address – while Vaughan believes the stigma attached to mental health conditions is a factor, dissuading some from reporting their concerns.

“We’re trying to create a culture of openness and transparency.”

Encouraging more discussion is a step in the right direction. Seafarer Help is a multi-lingual service, running 24/7, 365 days a year, providing a much-needed outlet for those who need to talk to someone. ISWAN has a programme called the Ship Health Information Project, which among other things provides advice on mental health issues. Meanwhile, the Wellness at Sea initiative, launched last year, focuses on the prevention of mental health problems associated with a life at sea.

“We’re trying to create a culture of more openness and transparency,” says Dickinson. “In the guidance we do appeal to people who may be bullies to go through a process of self-examination. Ask yourself, are you a bully? Could your behaviour be misunderstood?” There needs to be appropriate investigations and justice, he continues, but also a focus on correcting and changing behaviour.

Education is part of the answer, as sometimes “bullying and harassment can arise out of ignorance, or the alleged harasser may not realise their actions are causing distress to another colleague”, explains Shaw.

Educating seafarers

For this message to take root, those in positions of power have to be proactive. The information has to be pumped out to all levels and not just as part of a box-ticking exercise. The guidelines provide the framework in which to do this, giving shipowners the chance to unambiguously state what is acceptable and what is not.

Take cyber-bullying as an example. Dickinson says: “We can’t police what people do in their own private lives when they’re ashore, but when they’re on the ship and using the ship’s Wi-Fi and Internet, the company needs to be absolutely clear what is acceptable and what’s not.

“We need to make people aware that this is part of bullying and harassment, that it is not something separate that isn’t covered by common sense. It is about trying to encourage a change of behaviour.”

Shipping’s working environment will always, by nature, be isolating. But with the right support structures and understanding of what is right and wrong, it can be one where bullying of all kinds is a thing of the past. “Hopefully this conversation is now exponentially larger because of the ITF, ICS and other organisations,” says Dickinson. “We need to show leadership.”

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