Safety standards for seafarers aboard vessels are always being updated in line with new research and technological innovations in the maritime and shipping industry. Shipping was one of the first industries to implement international safety standards, mostly due to the clearly international nature of the industry. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is recognised as the main body, which has developed comprehensive guidelines and frameworks describing global maritime safety regulations, adopted in the Maldives as well.
These standards are there so all seafarers are afforded the same rights aboard their vessels and outside of the sovereign territory from which they hail or reside. Some major safety regulations accepted internationally include COLREG (Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972), MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973/1978), SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974), and ISPS (The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, 2002).
The main international bill of rights for seafarer safety is the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006, which came into force worldwide in August 2013. The Maldives adopted the bill of rights on 07th October 2014, and as such, seafarers gained the right to:
- A safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards
- Fair terms of employment
- Decent working and living conditions on board ship
- Health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection
The Maldives also follows the ISPS, developed to ensure better security for seafarers following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. The January 2008 amendment to the code requires all persons designated as Ship Security Officers (SSOs) to be issued a certificate of proficiency. In addition to this, the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) of 1978 carries a chapter dedicated solely to emergencies, occupational safety, security, medical care and survival functions, among others.
These are just some of the well-crafted standards in force in most countries of the world. However, it is also not surprising that some vessel owners may not fully follow the terms for purposes of cutting costs or get by employing ungainly means such as bribery and corruption. There would always be some vessel owners looking for a cheaper solution or failing to up-keep required standards of safety and living despite the stipulations.
Above being said about standards for ships, we cannot ignore the safety and welfare of the sailors on local boats (dhoni) and other crafts. Undoubtedly, reasonable standards should apply for these ‘Dhoni’ fleets under local regulations.
Crewing Cargo and Fishing boats
Speaking with a local boat captain revealed some of the issues with the implementation of the laws. Pointing out that governing bodies do not strictly enforce these standards, the Captain stated there have been instances where crew join without meeting the requirements. On most vessels,the crew complement consists of one or two Maldivians and the rest are all expatriate workers. Most of the time when foreign crew join a boat, they are not able to speak dhivehi or english and there is usually a huge communication problem. They have no basic training, may never have even worked on a boat before, and worst of all, some of them do not know how to swim.
According to local boat captains, the Niyami certification, initially a 150-hour training which later cut down to 30 hrs course going over subjects such as safety, navigation, chartwork, and watchkeeping, also seems like it’s not geared towards smaller vessels with few modules that local seafarers found relevant to their work. The certification, however, is necessary and the course covers some very important safety aspects at sea. The expatriates cannot join any training courses conducted in Maldives if they cannot speak and write Dhivehi. Hence, all those expatriates working on these boats are without any formal training.
Living conditions on these boats.
As for the the living conditions for seafarers aboard these boats, the captain pragmatically suggested moving to another vessel if the living conditions are poor aboard the current one.
Boat operators would generate enough income to have money to spend on improving the living conditions for her crew, he said, but sometimes it is neglected by owners, and the governing bodies don’t notice or take action. Local boat owners usually don’t encourage maintenance unless it’s broken or damaged. Therefore, the vessel’s condition gradually becomes intolerable. Some boats have living conditions that aren’t fit for any human, no ventilation, tiny spaces with poor lighting and poorer hygiene, packed with crew.Infestations are a very common problem onboard as most of them are wooden boats. Crew sometimes are forced to improve conditions by themselves or leave the owner and find another job. Safety inspectors who come to check the boats don’t appear to have enough expertise to notice these glaring violations.
There are also large numbers of expatriate workers who work as crew without legal documents. For them, getting medical treatment is extremely difficult due to the lack of legal papers.
Usually a cargo ‘dhoni’ has 4 crew including the captain. Out of the four, two or thee crew members may be untrained or undocumented expatriate workers. They may not know how to operate a fire extinguisher or wear a life jacket or use VHF to call for help. Having untrained crew members onboard is a huge safety issue which authorities ignore. If any emergency arises, the master is helpless at sea, miles away from land. A disaster waiting to happen.
One may wonder, if expatriates are employed onboard, perhaps forced due to unavailability of locals, why not train the expatriates so that they can be of help to others onboard instead of being a potential liability for the boat captain. I
n all other industries, if locals are not available, foreigners can be employed and any untrained expatriate can be trained by an employer. This doesn’t seem to be the case for local boat crews. There is no way to train an expatriate here in Maldives and boat owners are forced to employ them even without training.
Having only a Captain as a certified crew aboard these boats raises the question of how they would navigate continuously for 24 hours without taking rest. These boats don’t have autopilot; they must be steered manually and that means an untrained crew takes over while the captain takes rest. Such situations increase the risk of accidents.
Creating a safe environment for boat crew
A new legislation is required urgently to better protect the rights, safety, and security of seafarers. Such legislation should describe better safety parameters and minimum requirements for crew aboard their vessels. This would include living standards pertaining to factors such as space; ventilation; noise pollution and vibration; as well as food security. It further requires parameters for work hours, and crew rights during off days, rest hours and vacations. A bill such as this would set stricter standards for inspection of boats, requiring vessels to have the results of inspections visible for all crew to see. It would also set a precedent by providing an avenue by which crew can lodge official complaints to the relevant Ministry to address any grievances they may have regarding vessel owners’ compliance.
Since 60 to 80% of “dhoni” crew are expatriate workers, legislators may consider training them to minimize the risk of accidents.