On-The-Spot Advocates for Seafarers

Pastoral Activity Report—March 2023—by Chaplain James Kollin, International Seafarers’ Center, Port Newark.

Chaplain James Kollin

On a recent ship visit, I encountered a crew complaining about problems with the food they were given during their voyage. “We’ve had no vegetables for a month already, and we’re not happy about it,” said one seafarer. “Our officers kept telling us that they would order or purchase some at the next port, but now that we’re here, we see no signs of a delivery of vegetables.” Initially, I assumed this was a logistical matter and the responsibility of ship management. However, I discovered that it was repeatedly happening, and a few of the crew pleaded with me to do something.  

During my visit, I sat with the crew, and they offered me lunch. Indeed, there were no vegetables. Afterward, I talked with more crew members, including the third officer and chief engineer, and I asked them about it. One asked, “Who told you we haven’t had vegetables for a month? It’s a complicated matter.” Their replies were short, and they both seemed to not want to discuss the issue. I left their ship that day feeling dissatisfied. 

I revisited the ship the next day. At the gangway, the chief officer passed along a request from his captain. The chief said, “The captain wants to ask if you or someone from SCI could give one of our crew a ride to purchase vegetables.” I replied that we could not render special transport requests because our drivers were busy and our chaplains had many other ships to visit. I did, however, pass along a few suggestions for them to consider. They could contact their local shipping agent or a ship chandler, or they could take a cab. The chief officer replied, “Ah, we wanted free transportation.” After this conversation, I went to see the crew in the messroom and asked how they were feeling. They were still anxiously awaiting their officers to resolve this issue, and they hoped it would be done in this port as their next voyage was another long leg. Again, I left the ship that day feeling dissatisfied. 

Determined, I revisited the ship on the third day and, this time, I received good news. The chief joyfully said, “We were told this morning that vegetables would be delivered this afternoon.”  

To me, this was an advocacy issue—a violation of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. In particular, regulation 3.2, entitled “Seafarers Food and Catering Requirement,” states that “food and drinking water supplies—with regard to the number of seafarers on board, their religious requirements and cultural practices as they pertain to food, and the duration and nature of voyage—shall be suitable with respect to quantity, quality, nutritional value, and variety.” In this situation, the lack of proper food was a rights issue that needed to be addressed. This was also a pastoral care situation, as it was pervasive and impacted the crew’s physical and mental well-being. The food problem became a source of stress and anxiety among the crew. 

I wanted to wait and see the actual delivery, but I had other ships to visit that day. I was glad to hear that these seafarers would get what they needed and, by rights, what they were entitled to before they left port. Most of the time, as chaplains, we listen, advise, and offer counsel. But there are times, on occasion, when we must support seafarers and be their voice, becoming on-the-spot advocates for the crew.