The HRAS Interview with VGroup’s Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

Matt DunlopThe HRAS Interview: Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

Seafarers’ needs are constantly evolving, and meeting them is a responsibility that global ship management company V.Group takes seriously. Human Rights at Sea spoke to Matt Dunlop, Group Director of Marine Operations at V.Group, to find out how the group cares for its seafarers.

HRAS: Tell us about V.Group?images

V.Group is the world’s leading provider of maritime services to the commercial shipping and cruise industries and an increasingly important player in the energy sector. The company delivers a wide range of marine services including technical management, seafarer management, technical support, procurement and ship supply chain management within an extensive brand portfolio including the market-leading ship management specialist V.Ships.

V.Group employs 2,500 staff in 60 locations and manages the recruitment of some 38,000 seafarers. It delivers ship and crew management services to a diverse fleet of over 1,100 vessels. These include crude, products, chemical and LPG/LNG tankers, bulk carriers ranging from a large fleet of self-dischargers to VLOCs, container ships from feeders to 14,200 TEU units, as well as many specialized vessel types including offshore and seismic vessels, FSOs, FPSOs, drill rigs, cable layers and diving support/subsea units servicing the growing offshore market. V.Ships also delivers services to cruise ships, ferries and superyachts for blue chip clients.

HRAS: What issues does the industry face in ensuring seafarer welfare?

Seafarer welfare challenges, as with all other aspects of the industry, are ever changing. One of the major modern day welfare priorities is ensuring that seafarers have the opportunity to enjoy shore leave in port. Port time is important, particularly when you are spending four or five weeks at sea and you only get one or two days in port.

I’m an ex-seafarer myself, and I understand that having port time is necessary for seafarers. You don’t even necessarily have to go ashore. Sometimes it can just be a safe haven when the ship is not being adversely affected by waves and high winds. It’s time to sleep, time to eat, time to wash clothes etc.

However, things have changed since I was at sea. Today, no one wants to live near coal, ore or oil terminals or indeed container ports. These days, ships are going to ports that are quite remote, and that restricts the ability of seafarers going ashore. They often have less time ashore too, because technological advances mean that cargo loading and unloading operations are quicker. Turnaround times have been reduced. Security requirements such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code can also restrict the time that seafarers spend ashore.

HRAS: What action can be taken to address seafarer needs in port?

We are very much appreciative of the efforts of organizations such as Mission to Seafarers who do a fantastic job going to the ships and talking to seafarers or taking them back to their establishments for rest and relaxation.

What we as ship managers can do to support them is to make sure that adequate facilities are provided in port through our agents and by providing them with items such as pre-paid phone cards.

HRAS: How are you dealing with seafarers’ communication and connectivity needs?

Communications is another key welfare priority for seafarers We are working with all our shipowning clients to install broadband capability on their vessels. To encourage greater rollout of the latest communications technology, we have developed an in-house cost effective V-Sat solution that will benefit both vessel and crew communications. This allows seafarers to use their personal phones, tablets and laptops on the vessels wireless system to provide maximum accessibility and convenience.

HRAS: What are the key points of your corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy as they relate to welfare and human rights?

We have an extensive and well communicated CSR policy which is comprehensive and inclusive, applying to both shore and sea staff globally. The absolute priorities are focused on safety and environmental protection but are underpinned by policies protecting the human rights of all staff by looking at equal opportunities and a workplace driven by dignity and without discrimination.

V.Group attaches great importance to the pursuit of excellence as a corporate citizen in its operations throughout the world. The group believes that to achieve this, we must work in partnership with our employees, stakeholders, customers, suppliers and local communities.

The Board of Directors embraces wholeheartedly its commitment to best-practice corporate governance and social responsibility. We aim to ensure our businesses meet, and where possible exceed, ethical and legal expectations, and we aim for continuous improvement.

HRAS: How are your policies applied and assured?

To support our CSR policies, we have a widely circulated Seafarers’ Charter and similar mechanisms ashore that ensure that all staff understand the policies and have the ability to report concerns to senior management that will be handled as a priority and confidentially.

The Seafarers’ Charter confirms how any seaborne member of our team can expect to be treated. V.Group recognizes:

• The right to a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards
• The right to fair terms of employment
• The right to decent living and working conditions on board
• The right to health protection, welfare measures and other forms of social protection

Furthermore, V.Group is committed to ensuring that:

• Employment is offered to seafarers free of charge
• A workplace free of discrimination of any kind is provided
• Wage payments and allotments are paid in a timely fashion and measures are in place to verify this
• All seafarers receive wages to which they are contractually entitled
• Every effort is made to relieve seafarers at the time stipulated in the contract of employment and that measures are in place to achieve this
• Recruiting offices provide a welcoming environment and courteous disposition towards all sea staff
• Shore-based employees treat all sea staff with respect at all times and that this respect is reciprocated to promote harmony on board
• There is follow up of any complaint from seafarers alleging non-compliance with this Charter
• There is commitment to improving seafarers’ lives at sea and ashore as an ongoing priority.

HRAS: Has the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) had a significant impact on your operations?

At V.Ships we recognise the need for and the importance of the MLC convention. It is seen as the fourth pillar of maritime legislation that underpins the shipping industry. The implementation of the convention has had minimal impact on our operations due to the fact that our standards already met and exceeded the MLC requirements. Some operators will be in the same position, but many operators had to change their standards to meet MLC requirements, and this is very positive for the industry as a whole.

HRAS: Are you content with current regulation of seafarer welfare?

We are largely content. However, what is important is that the MLC requirements are subject to standardised and robust inspections to ensure all seafarer welfare safeguards are met in a standardised way.

The MLC is still fairly new and, like any regulation, it takes time for it to be embedded and understood consistently across the globe. Our concern is that there are still many inconsistencies in inspection standards and individuals who don’t quite understand the legislation.

What I hear, and what I see is that the MLC is not particularly well written. There are some grey areas. For example, there should be no doubt about who should sign the MLC, the shipowner, the manager or the operator, but there has been confusion. For example, if a shipowner goes into administration, who is responsible for the seafarers?

As ship managers, we are the ones who manage seafarer welfare. We’ve got a real role to play, but it is the shipowner who actually employs the seafarers, so the shipowners are the ones who should be signing. We are certainly involved. We’ll make sure we pay them on time. We’ll make sure our ships are up to MLC standards, and we’ll make sure that the welfare of the seafarers is protected – but the regulations could have been simpler.

Hopefully the next revision of MLC will clarify the inconsistencies and make it more user-friendly.

HRAS: Does caring for seafarers make good business sense?

We don’t have any assets in V.Group; people are our assets. It might sound corny, but the most important asset V.Group has is its people. Attracting and retaining the best people available is critically important as more and more shipowners are coming to us for a safe and cost effective solution to their requirements.

This is very important to us, and it is not a marketing initiative for V.Ships or V.Group. We are passionate about what we do. Being the only independent ship manager backed by private equity provides V.Group with the resources to invest in its people, systems and technology and enables us to remain ahead of the competition.

We do everything we can to make sure our seafarers are protected, that they are on safe ships, that they go home on time and are paid on time. If we do our job right, they’ll come back to us next trip. It’s as simple as that.

In a pioneering move for the industry, V.Group recently partnered with Human Rights at Sea to develop an eLearning course to support its seafarers as they deal with the complex challenges involved with migrant rescues. Human Rights at Sea congratulates V.Group for its achievements in seafarer welfare.

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