Shipping is a global industry, and with this globalisation comes social change. The seafarer is now swept along with the myriad changes in the industry and while he or she is sometimes encouraged to enhance skills and to increase flexibility in terms of work roles, he or she is more often than not left alone to come to terms with those limitations arising from any seafarer’s nationality on a multinational ship.

How Multinational Crews Developed

Multinational crewing is normal. Twenty years ago, crew members were replaced by any available nationality only in the event of a shipmate falling ill, getting injured, dying or even just signing off.

However, over the last two decades of the 20th century, a global labour market for seafarers has emerged and has become established through a worldwide network of agencies and organisations dedicated to crew management. This was due in part to the open register ships which accounted for more than half of the world’s internationally trading fleet. Besides, many of the European countries relaxed their crew nationality requirements. This encouraged seafarers to move freely between flags, a freedom created by the ship owners and managers, and with it, they gained the option of assembling crews of different nationalities. Ships whose flags and entire crew share the same nationality are mainly owned in the world’s developing countries. And it is also these same countries that are the suppliers of seafarers for the ships of the open register.

The cuts in labour costs made by ship owners and ship managers in the traditional maritime trading nations of the “Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development” bloc also played an important part in creating the global market. Around the mid-1980s, these nations ended their dependency on the established and regulated labour markets they were tied to and in which their businesses were located, and were free to choose from every world region that was in the market offering low cost seafaring labour. And so, every world region that was able to offer cheap seafaring labour immediately became a potential source of supply. Consequently, nationality became irrelevant. This laid the defining feature of the global labour market for seafarers:

“the freedom to assemble crews of any nationality for the first engagement and then to make completely different choices of nationalities at subsequent engagements”.


 Choosing Crews

How do these manning agents choose their crew? What are the factors that guide their decision to “mix” nationalities? There are preferences for particular nationalities and there are views and opinions held on their “mixability”. English language ability is one of the most decisive factors in the choice of a seafarer, especially if he is to work with English-speaking officers of other nationalities. Nationalities also seem to be chosen on a basis of inter-regional and intra-regional preferences, where those preferences seem to be a residue of historic imperial associations, for example:

 Koreans on Japanese ships;

  • Indonesians and West Africans aboard Dutch and British ships;
  • a Mediterranean preference for the Greeks with Egyptian officers and ratings;
  • a Baltic connection for the Germans and Norwegians who employ Poles on their ships; and
  • a South-East Asian connection for Singapore ships whose owners and agents employ mainly Indonesians, Malaysians and Thais.

In practice, however, price and availability will take precedence over sentiment and cultural familiarity. In the global shipping industry there exists an implicit “structuring of nationality choice by price”.

 In general, it is clear that the world shipping industry has become heavily dependent on crews drawn from Eastern Europe, the Far East and South Asia, with these three regions between them providing 81% of the world’s seafarers.

 The reason for the dominance of Eastern Europe, the Far East and South Asia is partly due to the cheaper cost of hiring and the surplus of seafarers available from these areas. Competency and certification are other issues that influence the choice of a seafarer. Sometimes specific national qualifications are required by the ship owners and ship managers, to meet the requirements of the flag that the ship is flying.


Addressing the Problem of Multinational Crews

The shipping industry has seen many changes in the last 20 years, prominent among them being technological innovation and a reduction in the size of crews. There are fewer people onboard to perform more jobs and tasks. In port all the crew members, including catering staff, have to lend a hand for on-deck jobs which may include loading/unloading cargo, bunkering, taking stores, engine and maintenance tasks, dealing with immigration and customs officers, Port State control (PSC) inspectors, cargo surveyors and the like.

This leaves the seafarer with little time for relaxation, or for going ashore or even for communication with his family back home. A lack of access to communication can cause a sense of isolation. Where crews are drawn from various countries, there may be barriers of differing cultures, languages and religions. Seafarers may find it difficult to discuss personal concerns or share hopes and ideas with colleagues who do not share their background and this may make them vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Nationality differences often correspond to the hierarchy onboard, resulting in social isolation and claustrophobic. These problems can be just as important for senior officers as for ratings. It is important for crew members from the master to the newest cadet or rating to support and encourage the maintenance of a “viable and living” shared culture onboard.

Existing data suggest that the attitude of the master is the single most important factor influencing the morale and happiness of the ship’s crew. Masters can actively encourage recreational activities such as birthday celebrations, barbeques, darts, table tennis tournaments, bingo, card games etc. Some ships have the facilities, where seafarers can play basket ball, practice tennis or golf techniques, play music, sing karaoke, box or work out in the gym. Where the master disapproves or does not actively encourage such activities, the seafarers withdraw to their cabins, reduce social interactions and may live out months of monotony broken only by the demands of heavy workload. At times this isolation can erupt in the form of personal grievances or aggressive behaviour that has an immediate adverse effect on ship operations and on the rest of the crew.

National holidays etc irrespective of the country should be celebrated. Sports events should be encouraged. National newspapers for regularly employed groups of seafarers should, wherever possible, be made available. Crew members should be encouraged to be sensitive to each other’s tastes in food, music and art and also to be considerate to each other’s needs especially if they are living in cramped quarters.


Support for Multinational Crews

Captains, officers and catering personnel should be prepared for their work in a multicultural environment and they should be made aware that for many of the crew, this work is a matter of “life and death” for them and their family at home. There are many supporting organisations that work under the umbrella of the International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare and all of them work to ensure that care and support is available to seafarers irrespective of nationality, religion, ethnicity or culture.


Communication is an important tool for social interaction and, more importantly, for safety at work. Even where language is not different, ship-board work can suffer and become dangerous as there is yet no levelling of the ship-board management and decision-making process with regard to rank and title.

Multinational crews from different cultural backgrounds speaking different languages are particularly impressive in their ability to overcome cultural barriers well enough to be able to use humour aboard. However, some crewmembers with very poor language skills may avoid making jokes and thereby miss out on an important aspect of a crew’s social life. This can lead to social isolation and further precipitate suicide, depression or addictive behavioural patterns.

Communication difficulties can pose a major challenge to mixed nationality crews. A view commonly expressed is that while there are many benefits to working with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the negative side is that it is much harder to communicate effectively. This miscommunication can cause work-related problems that can cause irritation or at times lead to dangerous misinterpretations of warnings or orders. To speak effectively, the crew member must not only know the English language, but should be able to understand different accents. Aboard ships one can come across Chinese English, Filipino English, German English, Singaporean English, Hinglish (Indian English) etc. So, seafarers are continually having to adapt to the language and accents of their newly encountered “gangway friends” so as not to be seen as less than competent in any aspect of their job.

Language can be a barrier between people and thus language training is important. Improvement of language skills and emergency procedures are important so that seafarers can communicate effectively and thus avoid frustration and dangerous situations. This could be done by distance learning and seafarer welfare centres might also be in a position to help. The seafarer must be helped through education to appreciate different cultures and encounters with each other.

The key question is how to make seafarers of different cultural backgrounds work better together and not how to make them work harder or in a more efficient manner. It has also been observed that sometimes to opt for a more multicultural crew is to favour the well known technique of control, divide and rule. The ability to communicate in such an isolated and independent environment is crucial.