Survey sets unions seafarer communications challenge


Research commissioned by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust has highlighted the need for trade unions to embrace electronic means of communication with their seafarer members. Carried out by London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, the project surveyed 1,000 seafarers to find out the best ways to contact them, and how they communicated at sea and on land.

The survey once again underlined the importance of email and web access to seafarers. Among its major findings were:

• Over half of all respondents were union members, but only a third of them were in regular contact with their unions. Awareness of the ITF was high, with seventy percent reading the organisation’s Seafarers’ Bulletin magazine.

• The best opportunity for communicating with seafarers was either when they were at home or on shore leave. The most popular ways for seafarers to communicate with their friends and family while at sea was by phone from seafarers’ centres (85%), through mobile phone calls (82%) and via SMS (74%).

• Onboard access to email has risen three-fold since 2007 but remains limited. 52% of seafarers, and 68% of ratings, said they had no access to email onboard

• Access to onboard email also varied according to the vessel type – for example, 67% of the seafarers onboard dry bulk carriers and 65% onboard general cargo vessels had no email access at all.

• Some 80% of seafarers, and 97% of ratings, said they had no access to the internet while at sea. Where access was available it was expensive, they said.

• Websites are a potential communication tool as 50% of seafarers access the internet at least twice a month while at sea. This rises to 80% when seafarers are at home.

• Some 40% of seafarers said the best way for unions to contact them was by email, although ratings marginally preferred a phone call. Home telephone (29%) and mobile phone (18%) were the next most popular options.

• 70% of respondents used social networking sites. Facebook was the most popular, while 78% of Chinese seafarers used QQ.

• Officers were much more likely than ratings to use the internet, mobile phones and social networking sites, whether at sea or at home. For example, 82% of the officers accessed the internet every day when they were at home, compared with only 39% of the ratings.

• Ratings relied more often than officers on phones in seafarers’ centres or public phone boxes while on shore leave.

• However officers and ratings had similar levels of access to email when they were on shore leave.

Steve Cotton, ITF maritime coordinator, commented: “These results set us – and every seafarers’ union – a challenge: how best to serve workers who spend a great part of their working lives at sea. Thankfully the technologies are there; the task is to make sure they are as available as possible.”

He continued: “We trust that this research will interest people in unions and beyond. Potentially it has lessons for the whole industry.”

The ITF has made the survey available online in its full form and also as an electronic (and hard copy) leaflet. They can be seen at