April 03, 2014

Out of touch.

The KnowMe project is a three year European Union project examining ways to improve shipping’s image, its training and R&D, and to make seafaring more attractive. Their budget is 1.5 million Euros. Part of the money has just been blown up in discovering what many would have told them for free- that poor communication with family, social isolation, poor living conditions and insufficient rest hours are the most likely reasons that seamen stop sailing. And that availability of affordable communication was a critical factor for seamen in deciding which company or ship to join.

The project has produced some statistics after a sailor poll of 500 seamen over 20 odd nationalities. I reproduce these briefly for the academically inclined:

Almost half the respondents said they felt discriminated against- when it came to communication home- because they were seamen. More than 97% of seamen said communication facilities were crucial for their well-being. Half of those polled said they communicate with their families at least once a day. Only a third had access to the internet, only about half had access to email and only two-thirds had access to expensive sat phones.  More than a quarter of seamen polled had no email access at all.

And, finally, one-third of seamen spend between 10 and 20 per cent of their salaries on communication; a tenth of them burn more than 20%.

I will, however, downplay these statistics (500 seamen polled in presumably European ports is not a good enough sample) and make some bald statements of my own:

  • ·         Considerably more than half of all merchant ship crews suffer from poor communication facilities, counteracting which (because- fancy that- we seamen want to talk to our families) end up costing them a significant portion of their salaries. Using the ship’s satellite phone in the absence of email, for example.
  • ·         One barometer of the importance of communication to crew: Approaching the coast, the news of the availability of a ‘phone signal’ (when a cell phone coverage area is reached) spreads faster than fire on a ship.
  •        On many ships on regular runs, areas where this signal is good is marked on charts by officers for future use.
  • ·         Like many Masters, I have plotted the passage and modified courses to get this ‘phone signal.’ Yeah, yeah, I know about the safety implications.
  • ·         Unlike many Masters, I have often hung around after dropping pilot, sometimes for an hour or more, before a long open sea passage to give the crew adequate time to call home using their cell phones- something many could not do because they were being run ragged in port. I did this because a happier crew works better; also because I consider us seamen to be human, something that shipping seems to have forgotten.

 I will not dwell on shipping’s hardened disregard for the welfare of its sailors here, but only point out what is obvious. One, that the generation younger than me is not satisfied with just an email or a phone call home. They want social media- the facebooks and twitters- and want to be in touch with their friends and acquaintances as well. This is a good thing, because it reduces the social isolation all sailors tend to suffer from.

Two, it is in shipping’s paramount interest- not just the crews’-that it provides internet and VOIP- free or dirt cheap, as is ashore- as a tool to attract and retain talent, even if it means subsidising personal internet use somewhat. This is because good officers and crews do not grow on trees.

Before I end, a comment on the Maritime Labour Convention that is in force. The nth pillar of whatever and all that is remarkably sanguine about the importance of communication to seamen, only saying- as a guideline- that "consideration" should be given to include "reasonable access to ship to shore telephone communications, and email and internet facilities, where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount".  Keep in mind that the MLC is a 2006 thing; social media has exploded since then, and so have the expectation from young sailors.

Like I said, that is a guideline. Which means it isn’t going to be enforced, much less followed, by an industry that believes in selective implementation of guidelines. (If it suits the owner, follow it; if it costs more than a penny, dump it.)

Anyway, is being forced to spend 10 to 20 per cent of your basic salary calling home a ‘reasonable amount’? There would be flash strikes and general mayhem if shore employees in ship operating companies were asked to pay a similar percentage for personal calls made from work, I bet.  



Reid said...

Dear Manu -

I well remember a 5 1/2 month trip to South America on an ATB back in the early '80s. We had a satellite phone on board - it was for company use, but crew could use it if they logged their time and paid for their minutes.

I was engaged to be married at the time, and didn't want my fiance to forget me! So over the course of the trip, without quite meaning to, I logged well over $1,000 in phone bills. That would amount to several thousand today. She married me, so I guess it was worth it (What's that, Hon? Oh yes, it was DEFINITELY worth it!)

Anyway, great post about a critical issue that too few (except seamen) regard as important. Communication is not a luxury - it's necessary as food and water!

manu said...


Around the same time, and, coincidentally, in the Atlantic, a solo guy on a yacht contacted me on VHF. A Norwegian, he had been out of touch with his family for a months- I think he was delivering a yacht from the US to Europe.

We stopped to give him some food/water/other stuff, I called his wife on the Satcom later after he had been cast off (I got the number from him on VHF) to tell her he was ok. I paid something like 8 or 9 dollars a minute, the total call cost me maybe a hundred dollars since she wanted details. This was quite a bit of money back then.

But, after hearing the lady's relief at the other end of the line, I thought it was well worth it.
Like with your fiance then.

Anonymous said...

My dear Manu,
It should read "if it costs even a penny, dump it, they will next ask me to spend more, talk of subsidizing calls home, ha.
Take care