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Morale among seafarers has plunged for the second quarter in a row this year, according to a study by Mission to Seafarers.

The Mission to Seafarers’ latest Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI) reveals morale this year dropped from 7.1 in January to 6.77, out of 10.

As the world’s biggest “labour standards wild west”, it falls to whichever is the globe’s least-scrupulous flag to set the bar for employment rights in the maritime industry, often making them effectively non-existent.

Crews are routinely left abandoned, with their ships, generally off the coastline of the UAE, historically the world capital of seafarer abandonment. At the end of December, there were 207 unresolved cases of abandonment, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In such cases, shipping lines withhold seafarers’ wages, leaving them to return home and forgo often years of back pay – which then may be impossible due to lines holding their passports.

The report highlights cases of seafarers or running out of food while their vessel is under way, or being charged a scrip-style stipend for drinking-water. Other problems include the normalisation of extended contracts, intended to be a quirk of the Covid-19 pandemic and the various travel restrictions it imposed. During the pandemic, it was not unusual for seafarers to spend more than a year away from their loved ones, thanks to exploitative contracts.

“It seems that while employers reacted swiftly to pandemic pressure, a return to pre-pandemic standards has been slow. Standards of welfare and employment appear more prone to downward changes than upward progress, and that is a cause for much frustration,” notes the report.

The harrowing effects of such contracts are at least, by now, understood – if not fully quantified. In the wake of the 2020 grounding of Panama-flagged bulk carrier Wakashio, when 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil was spilled off the Mauritius coast, it was found that two crew members had been on board for more than a year, and the captain, too, was on an extended contract.

And a 2022 report from the UK Department for Transport (DfT) on suicides among seafarers found crews were often at sea for periods of 11 months, “…and confined to their ships for most of their working contract”.

The DfT study determined that suicides among seafarers were much more common than they appear in statistics, under-reporting partially as a result of life insurance payouts. Should a seafarer die in service, their family is assured a payout of around $150,000; but suicides yield nothing. So it is suggested that seafarers will turn suicide into fake workplace accidents, and colleagues will corroborate these, to ensure security for their families.

“Allow for suicide to be an insured risk and the data would clarify very quickly,” said one shipping manager in the report.

Despite the background talk of automated, or even AI-controlled, ships – which has been a constant for at least 15 years – there is yet to be a single working example.

Obviously, then, seafarers will continue to be necessary for many years to come, despite the thinning of crews to the bare minimum –further contributing to their isolation and poor mental health.