August 08, 2013

Personal communication, a seaman’s right.

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing- not even in the much hyped Maritime Labour Convention- that requires shipowners of all ocean going ships to compulsorily provide internet or email facilities to their crews. That, in 2013, four of five seafarers have no access to the internet at sea is ridiculous. That the picture is even more dismal for ratings- 97 per cent of whom have no internet access- is also discriminatory.

There are more than a few shipowners and shipmanagers that provide generous email facilities for officers- and, increasingly, for ratings as well- aboard their ships. They are the smarter ones, but, as figures show, most seamen are not granted this apparent luxury.

Ashore, with work-personal life lines getting increasingly blurred, and with smartphones (often company paid) everywhere, personal communication during working hours is a commonplace occurrence. Our seamen, who have little personal life at work anyway, deserve more, not less, of this facility. At the minimum, they should have a codified and legal right (legal, since depending on shipmanager goodwill is breaking wind against thunder), to be able to send and receive emails to anybody they want to on a daily basis. And they should have a right to do this in some sort of privacy. 

Even those spurious arguments that were put forward against free shipboard email access half a decade ago don’t apply any longer. Installation of new facilities is relatively inexpensive even if these are needed. But in most cases even that is unnecessary; tweaking the software and the installation and networking of a few ‘extra’ computers on each ship is all that is required. If bandwidth cost is a concern, ban attachments or limit their size, if you must. And reduce by half the thousands of emails that your office sends the ship every year, while you are about it.

Other fake arguments against crew email have included the stupid (crew won’t work), the callous (it is not in their contract), the patronising (crew’s families don’t normally have email accounts, Captain,  one Superintendent told me not all that long ago) and the plain dumb (We didn’t have email when we sailed, one 55 year old manager told me once. We wrote letters. Sure you did, I thought. And before you they used carrier pigeons. And before that, they wrote messages in a bottle and threw it over the side. And before that, they probably shouted across the water. So what’s your point? Regression is virtuous?)  

It is reprehensible how we expect ship’s crew to sail for months on end with such little contact with their families. The advent of mobile phones has eased the situation somewhat: anybody who has sailed recently will tell you for the rush for prepaid SIM cards at each port of call. When sailing on fixed runs, all of us had a half dozen or so of these cards, one for each country that we touched. Stories of ships hugging the coast to get a good mobile phone signal are well known; I have done this myself.

(Tut-tut, some out of date shipping gaffer will no doubt tell me from the safety of his shore office. That practice can be a safety hazard. That is another fake argument, sir, and insulting to boot, because it questions my competence.)

Today, short port stays and restricted shore leave mean add to the seaman’s isolation from family and from society. I can tell you, from experience, that I used to find it very difficult to even find time to call my family using my own mobile phone in port, work was that crazy. Terminals across the world, barring few exceptions, usually have few phone or internet facilities. Internet cafes and long distance calling booths have closed down as demand has collapsed with mobile phones and internet saturation ashore. All this makes communication for a seaman much tougher than it used to be. Than it needs to be.

Which is why cheap and regular communication at sea should be every seaman’s basic right. Not an industry ‘best practice,’ as shipmanagers will have you believe, but a right. In any case, shipping’s best practices are best left uncommented upon.

Somebody amend the Maritime Labour Convention, please. Just one line: ‘On oceangoing vessels, free email facilities must be provided daily to each crew; it is a seafarer’s right.’

Maybe the MLC will then do some good after all.



Reid Sprague said...

Great point - and it's another factor seamen can take into consideration regarding employment. I would think that any employer who was responsive to his crews' communications needs might also be more proactive in protecting them from piracy, and taking care of them and their families if they were hijacked. In other words, he might be more likely to behave like a fellow human being!

We used to hear the "they won't work" argument with regard to TV, too. It did not turn out to be true. Good post!

manu said...


Coincidentally, read this today

Online concerns

manu said...

Oops, forgot...

From that shiptalk piece

"Nautilus have questioned the validity of the form and expressed concerns as to how many Liberian flag vessels actually have internet access".

Reid Sprague said...

Very germane! One of the things Mariners Action Group discussed with SCI recently was Internet access - SCI was pointing out the access available at the Seamen's Center at Port Newark. But to take advantage of that, a seaman would need to get ashore - a sore point in itself.

The 'digital divide' reflects social and economic disparities that are as stubborn as they are pernicious. But you're right, a line in MLC might help!