C.6.1 Introduction

Seafarers are on board for an extended time, facing long periods away from family and friends, with limited or no communication for months on end and weathering the dangers of life at sea. On top of this, crew numbers are decreasing in size, leading to an increased workload. Shore leave can be severely restricted, especially with the faster turnaround of ships in port. Therefore, welfare facilities and services, either on board or ashore, can be a lifeline for seafarers.

C.6.2 Welfare Matters

The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) is a relatively new legal document; however, the ILO has been active and concerned about seafarers’ welfare since the mid 20th century. The ILO Recommendation concerning the Promotion of Seamen’s Welfare in Ports (No. 48) was adopted in 1936. This dealt with the provision of recreational and sporting facilities in ports. The subsequent ILO Recommendation, Seafarers’ Welfare at Sea and in Ports (No. 138), was adopted in 1970 with a much wider scope. It included provisions to organize and fund welfare services, recreation facilities, as well as cultural and educational activities. These two recommendations succeeded in gaining broad acceptance and highlighted the importance of seafarers’ welfare. In 1987, the ILO adopted two more instruments of Seafarers’ Welfare, namely, Convention No. 163 and Recommendation No. 173. The International Committee on Seafarers Welfare (ICSW) was established at this time in order to implement these ILO instruments. Further information on the work of the ILO can be found in Chapter 3.3.3.

Consideration of the type, nature and accessibility of welfare for seafarers, needs knowledge and a study of the seafarer himself and the seafaring industry – ships, routes, cargo, crew, food, communication and the entire important universe that the seafarer abides in. Looking at the seafarer, we often perceive a brave courageous hardy person, at times with a little excess of bravado and scant or little respect for the chaplain’s or doctor’s recommendations. They are a species or a community by themselves and factors that determine their behaviour are peculiar to themselves and peculiar to the industry.

Overall, there are several reasons to improve the quality of life on board, especially at ‘leisure time’. However, this wellbeing is not only a recreational matter but also a matter of medical care for example, to prevent burnout or psychosomatic diseases, the consequence of which has economic impact. Over the last decade, organizations like ISWAN (The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network), the successor organisation to ICSW (the International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare) and ISAN (International Seafarer Assistance Network), The Sailors Society (SS), the UK P&I Club and several others have worked to assist companies, unions and stake holders to put seafarer welfare measures in to place.

C.6.3 Port welfare and facilities


According to the MLC, each state is obliged to provide seafarers with easy and non-discriminatory access to shore-based social services. Social facilities in ports are primarily the seafarer's mission centres. They are of great importance for the seafarers and provide the:

  • possibility for communicating with family and home. In these facilities, seafarers can make phone calls, use the Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN )and obtain phone and SIM cards at particularly low prices.
  • option to transfer wages to their families that is particularly used by Asian seafarers
  • opportunity for leisure activities such as playing table tennis, billiards, table football and darts. Magazines, books and other information material are also available there, for example, information about the port city.

Some also offer overnight accommodation. And a shuttle service to and from the mission n and possibly to the nearby port city is usually available.

As a welfare institution, the missions provide an important opportunity for contact with seafarers due to their proximity to the port terminal and the relatively easy access.

They should enable the seafarer, at least for a short period, to leave their role in the hierarchical ship operation and use different contact, communication and relaxation facilities. Through such a "relieving role change", the crew can experience relaxation, attention and care that normal on board operations cannot provide. Seafarer's missions are also important facilities for seafarers, after extreme stress situations or unfair treatment on board or in the event of personal crises.  At the mission the seafarer can receive understanding, support and help to deal with, for example, a crisis on board, such as the death of a colleague, accidents in the family or natural disasters in the home country. Religious support may also be available. Ideally, on board visits by the staff of the mission are carried out if required, mainly for seafarers who are unable to leave the vessel for operational reasons.

C.6.4 Personal communication with families


Separation from family and other social support networks in the home country is a major burden for seafarers. This applies in particular to East Asian seafarers such as Filipinos where telecommunication with the family is of great importance for these very family-oriented individuals. Insufficient communication opportunities can have a decisive influence on the well-being of seafarers. Socio-biographical characteristics such as marital status, age, cultural background and position on board influence the need for communication and the use of telecommunications.

Suitable equipment, for both seafarers and their families, is an essential prerequisite for a functioning telecommunication system. A large proportion of seafarers have a mobile phone or a computer with an internet connection, however many seafarers rate the communication possibilities to the family as inadequate, particularly those on worldwide shipping routes[1]. When cruising worldwide, seafarers usually only have cost-intensive satellite connections at their disposal. It is easier for seafarers on feeder ships navigating in the North Sea and Baltic Sea to use their telecommunication equipment and to keep in touch with their families. It is estimated that the internet is now available on average in 36% of all sectors – particularly passenger, offshore and gas carriers[2]. This compares to only 20% of container, bulk carriers and general cargo ships having internet access. Increasing numbers of ship owners are realizing the importance of providing internet access to crews, with access on board ships now widely regarded as a key component in the attraction of new entrants to the profession. The prospect of not being able to readily communicate with the outside world has become highly unappealing to the vast majority of today's seafarers. Therefore, such provision also helps with retention of existing staff.

Although network or internet communication with the family is very important for seafarers, it cannot provide personal closeness in the true sense of the word. For example, the speaker’s non-verbal reactions cannot be perceived and experienced. In particular, delayed communication by e-mail or SMS does not meet this requirement. This kind of communication does not allow the respective partners to respond or react immediately. In addition, during communication, the seafarer and the family member at home are in different worlds. The environments that they currently experience have a significant influence on their communication. The restriction to only one means of communication, via the internet, can have a negative effect on social competence because people need lively interaction.

C.6.5 Welfare Organisations 



Life at sea can be challenging in many ways and situations where guidance or assistance is needed will occur. Often these can be sorted out on board but there will be times when this is not possible despite all best efforts. In addition, a seafarer may appreciate objective and comprehensive information and advice on a number of issues. Seafarers may also have the desire to report incidents or attitudes to external agencies if these have not been addressed satisfactorily on board.

In this situation welfare and other organisations are essential. Some are outlined below although there are many smaller or more geographically focused ones.

International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN)[3]

What is ISWAN?

ISWAN works to promote and support the welfare of seafarers all over the world. Its members and supporters include representatives of ship owners, maritime trade unions and welfare organisations both faith based and secular.  Their work is also part-funded by major maritime charities such as the ITF Seafarers’ Trust[4] and the TK Foundation[5]. They work with companies, unions, governments, welfare organisations and ports for the implementation of the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. They support those who establish and provide welfare facilities and services in port and on ships and are funded by membership subscriptions, grants from foundations, sponsorship and earned income. As well as those outlined below, current projects include:

Mentally Healthy Ships, a guide that provides shipping companies and ship operators with information to help devise and implement mental health policies and practices to promote and protect seafarers’ mental health.

Mental Health Awareness Training for the Maritime Industry, a two-module online mental health awareness training course. It provides an introduction to mental health awareness and in understanding mental health, recognising the signs of mental health problems and first response to concerns that can arise on board. It is aimed at management-level personnel on shore and on board ships

Social Interaction Matters (SIM), a project that aims to help shipping and ship management companies improve seafarers’ social interaction on board, and to positively impact the wellbeing of their seafarers through using programmes with proven success.

Yacht Crew Help, a free, confidential, multilingual helpline for professional yacht crew.

Seafarers’ Health Information Programme (SHIP), a long-running project that aims to offer both shipping companies and seafarers information on how to stay fit and well on board. This also includes the ‘Quench’ Hydration campaign that provides seafarers with the information about maintaining adequate levels of hydration.

Indian Seafarers Campaign, a campaign to discourage Indian seafarers from signing up with crewing agencies which have not registered with the Directorate General of Shipping (DGS).

International Port Welfare Partnership (IPWP) Programme, a programme that aims to encourage and support the establishment of welfare boards worldwide in accordance with the International Labour Organization Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. Welfare Boards provide the forum for maritime organisations to regularly meet and support seafarers' port welfare services and facilities in order to improve seafarers' lives.

In addition, ISWAN provides

  • an emergency welfare fund for seafarers in dire need,
  • production of health information for seafarers on subjects such as HIV and AIDs, healthy diets, hygiene and safe travel
  • a directory listing seafarer centres around the world, facilitating access to services in port.
  • training of ship welfare visitors
  • online toolkit for welfare organisations

The SeafarerHelp 24 hour helpline and referral service provides a unique contact point for seafarers and their families. Typical problems discussed include:

  • contractual disputes such as non-payment of wages,
  • failure to repatriate seafarers at the conclusion of their voyage,
  • abandonment,
  • need for medical attention,
  • concerns about attacks by pirates,
  • poor accommodation or food and
  • bullying and harassment on board.

Seafarer Help deals with a range of cases, even simply providing a listening ear. The service is free, confidential and available to seafarers and family members around the world. The service is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a years, and offers a multilingual service, including Russian, Tagalog, Hindi, Arabic and Mandarin.

Regional Programmes

The regional programmes provide humanitarian support to seafarers and their families in three specific regions, South East Asia, South Asia and West and Central Africa. The programme was developed in response to the needs of seafarers facing the crisis of being taken hostage by pirates and the families left behind. As Somali piracy decreased, the programme has moved towards other crises including deaths, injuries, illness and imprisonment and offers financial, practical and emotional support to seafarers and their families in times of need.

The South Asia Programme

The South Asia programme has made good progress in reaching out to seafarers’ welfare in various ports in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Ship visiting and the ship visitors’ training course is in motion, but, much more needs to be done to motivate and to activate the cooperation of welfare workers and stakeholders at port level. Everybody is doing something and everyone wants to do their own thing and the problem here is how to avoid duplication of efforts. One solution is to synchronize efforts with welfare schemes already in place from governments, ports, ship owners and seafarers’ organizations.  A working model is already in place for ready implementation in the various port welfare committees set up where the government and all concerned work towards a common goal of seafarers welfare incorporating health and wellness too.

Maritime Piracy and Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP)

This programme was created to assist seafarers and their families with the humanitarian aspects of a traumatic incident caused by a piracy attack, armed robbery or being taken hostage. In 2015, MPHRP moved its activities into ISWAN and continues to offer regional support to seafarers and their families in South Asia, South East Asia, Nigeria and elsewhere as required. ISWAN aims to encourage resilience and preparedness among seafarers before they go to sea through pre-departure training and good practice guides.

Other organisations

International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA)


As maritime social institutions, the seamen's missions are organised within the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA) (2) based in Great Britain. They represent different churches and Christian faith communities, regardless of denomination. Seafarer's missions are represented in almost all sea ports and inland ports. The staff consists of port chaplains, deacons and volunteers. The ICMA ensures standards in education and training for the staff in these institutions. The focus is on the care of seafarers, fishermen and their family members. The care of these persons is irrespective of origin, religion, gender or race and aims to promote ‘the dignity and welfare of seafarers’.

The ICMA networks offer their members legal advice on the support and care of seafarers through the Centre for Seafarers` Rights in New Jersey. There is also close cooperation with the International Labour Organization, ILO, subsection 13.1.1, the International Transport Workers' Federation, ITF, subsection 13.2.2, and the International Maritime Organization, IMO, subsection 13.1.3. ICMA was involved in the development and drafting of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 (3). Furthermore, ICMA is part of the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network and the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP).

Affiliates of ICMA include most of the major seafarer missions:

The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) (5). SCI is a comprehensive agency that provides a wide range of services for seafarers. It is based in North America, and provides services with respect to a seafarer’s personal, professional as well as spiritual needs, including education, pastoral care and legal help. Most important of them is the free legal aid service they provide exclusively to seafarers.

Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) (7). The AoS provides help, support and advice to seafarers at almost all of the major ports globally, irrespective of their nationality. Volunteer ship visitors work in association with the local chaplains assist seafarers in need. It also works in liaison with the ILO and ITF.

The Mission to Seafarers and The Sailors’ Society both provide similar support services to those of the AoS. Although each of the three organisations has different faith-based origins they frequently co-operate to provide shared welfare resources for seafarers in ports around the world.