London has recently held the first ever conference focused solely on the issue of human rights at sea. This is a vast topic taking in many of the concerns that have troubled the maritime sector for years: slavery in the supply chain; modern day piracy; human trafficking; and the migrant crisis. As a communications professional advising organisations within both fishing and shipping, what struck me most from the day was the reputational risk businesses are taking in ignoring human rights. There is and always has been a clear business case for treating your workforce, and those you come into contact with, as people with inviolable rights.
The International Maritime Human Rights Conference was organised by charity Human Rights at Sea and supported by organisations across the maritime spectrum, from Seafarers UK to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO). The day was divided into four sections. The first part of the day set about laying the context for the conference, with talks from the organisers, shipowner George Tsavliris, Kuba Szymanski at InterManager, Migrant Offshore Aid Station and an association of fishing companies, the PFA. The second part of the day focused on businesses’ responsibility in upholding human rights, both for their employees and the people and communities they interact with.
Session three of the conference looked at maritime welfare and was principally concerned with seafarer welfare. Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Chris Wood and Officer Cadet Sarah Stevens of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary both spoke about diversity at sea, including the lack of role models for female seafarers and the position of LGBT rights within a global industry. There was also a presentation from King’s College London’s Professor Neil Greenberg, who, because of the danger involved in the profession of a seafarer, spoke about stress and trauma and the psychological impacts they can have on workers. Did you know that a ‘psychological debriefing’ following a traumatic event can actually do more harm to the individual?
The final part of the day focused on investigating and resolving human rights abuses at sea. One of the world’s leading practitioners in the field of human trafficking, Parosha Chandran, shared her experience and the history of how UK legislation has been created and amended since 1772 to protect against slavery. We also heard from Debasis Mazumdar at St. Kitts & Nevis International Ship Registry, who discussed the responsibility of Flag States in monitoring the welfare of seafarers operating under their flag.
The day’s mantra was ‘human rights apply at sea, as equally as they do on land’. Of course it is true that working at sea is different to working on land. There are legal quirks and regulatory confusions that just don’t happen ashore. For one thing, seafarers are the only group of UK workers who are excluded from the full protection of the National Minimum Wage and equal pay legislation. Moreover, a factory owner in Scunthorpe could not choose to up and move his factory and workers to Dusseldorf when new, unappealing legislation is brought in. But that’s exactly what shipowners do when flagging out. Human rights, however, are non-negotiable. Any business found to infringe the rights of a human being will not just face legal penalties, but will face the punishment of the public court too. A reputation is hard won but easily lost!
For UK-listed companies alone reputation is worth £1.7 trillion. That’s according to research by BDO LLP and the Quoted Companies Alliance, which found that based on the impact on sales, share price and employee morale, small and mid-cap businesses attach 28 per cent of their value directly to reputation. This compares with the 2015 UK Reputation Dividend Report, which indicated that 30 per cent of the market value of the FTSE 100 is attributable to reputation.
Consumers today demand that the brands they do business with are ethical and responsible. It’s no longer enough to say you have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy. Businesses must demonstrate this through action. The saying ‘to do well, you must do good’ has increasingly been embraced by businesses in all sectors. Any charity connection needs to be relevant and genuine. BP’s recently-ended and long-standing sponsorship of the Tate is an example where a CSR scheme feels unnatural and therefore disingenuous.
But it isn’t just about appeasing the public at large. Successful business owners rely upon their workforce. Nowhere is this clearer than in the maritime sector, where we have a 16,500 shortfall of trained seafarers. Simple business economics tells us that where there is demand, but low supply, prices go up. The seafarer is today an expensive commodity. Businesses need to appeal to seafarers as much as the other way around, by showing themselves to be good employers.
While there are examples of bad businesses in the maritime world, holding on to pay and driving down working conditions, this exists in all industries. Fortunately many seafarers are afforded protection by governments, maritime organisations and trade unions such as Nautilus International and the International Transport-workers Federation. Where protection is limited, and the conference highlighted in detail, is with the current migrant crisis. By its very nature, this has created the conditions where human rights abuses including slavery and trafficking can take place.
And yet, there is a human reason as well as a business case to operate responsibly and ethically. The International Maritime Human Rights Conference successfully brought together maritime experts and professionals from across this vast sector to discuss the issue and that is to be applauded.
That migration, trafficking and piracy were debated alongside working conditions for employed and protected seafarers shows the wide range of challenges faced by this vital industry. So my question and my concern is this:
‘Can they really all be viewed though the same lens or does that risk the apparent weight of the problems acting as a deterrent to effective action?’