The American maritime industry is ramping up efforts to promote workplace environments that are safe for everyone.
Those joint endeavors involve the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and its Maritime Administration, U.S.-flag vessel operators, public and private maritime schools, maritime unions and others.
As previously reported, in late September 2021, an anonymous member of the class of 2022 at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at King’s Point, New York, submitted an account detailing her alleged sexual assault during her Sea Year. According to her writing, she was raped by the first engineer aboard her vessel (who was her supervisor as a member of the engine department).
The anonymous victim’s report is posted online on the website of the organization Maritime Legal Aid and Advocacy. She describes sexual harassment as a common occurrence among the female students at King’s Point. A second alleged victim posted a similar account a few weeks after the initial one appeared online.
Subsequent, ongoing investigations by the DOT and USMMA (and others) are aimed at pinpointing the scope and specifics of the problem and taking corrective action. In the interim, the USMMA “Sea Year” program has been suspended indefinitely.
The SIU and its affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education (PHC) have not been implicated in any of the accusations or investigations, but both the union and the school are actively working to shore up safety for everyone. Their joint efforts include conducting an anonymous, electronic sexual assault/sexual harassment (SASH) survey at the school; circulating a SASH flyer from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Investigative Service; developing a new SASH brochure; participating in industry-wide meetings (some of which have included DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg and DOT Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg); and reviewing the school’s SASH policy.
The SIU also teamed up with other unions in issuing a letter to their respective members in late October. Signing the communication were SIU President Michael Sacco, American Maritime Officers President Paul Doell, MEBA President Adam Vokac, MM&P President Don Marcus, SUP President Dave Connolly, MFOW President Anthony Poplawski and ARA President Kelly Anderson.
The letter reads: “As you know, our industry recently made unwanted headlines due to allegations of sexual assault and alcohol consumption aboard an American-flag vessel. We take the incident with utmost seriousness, but, regardless of how that particular case plays out, the undersigned unions – who represent the majority of deep-sea U.S. mariners – are taking this opportunity to reinforce our collective commitment to helping ensure that all seafarers have a safe workplace free of fear, harassment, bullying and any kind of assault. We are in the process of thoroughly but quickly re-examining and, where warranted, updating policies and practices that will facilitate education, protection and mutual respect within the ranks of our memberships and throughout the industry.
“Turning a blind eye is not acceptable. All seafarers must be committed to active opposition to any type of harassment, bullying or discriminatory behavior. It is our collective duty to protect and respect our shipmates. As maritime professionals and decent human beings, we must look out for one another.
“When a mariner experiences or observes harassment, bullying or discriminatory behavior, the alarm must go off. Such conduct must immediately be stopped and/or reported. The hierarchy aboard ship, the power relationship inherent in that structure and the closed shipboard environment can become coercive. Mariners must not be compelled to endure an unsafe workplace for the sake of their paychecks, careers, or reputations.
“Each of our organizations is committed to ensuring the safety and fair treatment of every member. Realizing we are dealing with a social problem that can be magnified aboard ship, every member must share the commitment to speak out and act when they observe shipboard bullying, harassment, discrimination, or assault.
“We know that our members are professionals, and that the overwhelming majority of U.S. Merchant Mariners are decent folks who work hard to make a living in a unique industry. We are often in leadership positions aboard ship. Our personal example and insistence on the safety and respectful treatment of our shipmates is the essence of leadership. Whatever the rating, experience, or qualifications, a good shipmate protects their co-workers and does not tolerate any forms of abuse.”
During the November SIU membership meeting in Piney Point, Sacco and SIU Executive Vice President Augie Tellez encouraged Seafarers to treat each other with respect and protect one another like family, whether aboard ship, at the hiring halls, at the PHC or elsewhere ashore.
The Sea Year program in particular has gotten the attention of Congress. On Oct. 29, six members (all Democrats) wrote to Buttigieg calling for remediation. Signing the letter were Reps. Peter DeFazio, Adam Smith, Joe Courtney, Maria Cantwell, Jackie Speier, and Salud Carbajal.
The letter in part said: “We are very concerned with the recent allegations of sexual assault by a female cadet at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) during her Sea Year experience in 2019. This brave female cadet not only shared her story on the terrible circumstance she endured while at sea, but also detailed alarming statistics regarding the number of other female cadets within her class who have also been harassed and assaulted…. In 2016, the Department of Transportation stood down the Sea Year program to implement changes to better protect students. But those changes clearly did not work, and we are concerned that the cadets remain in danger.”
They recommended suspending the Sea Year program for the current term and added, “Prior to the resumption of Sea Year, we request the USMMA develop a public written action plan that includes detailed steps that will be taken to ensure the safety of cadets at sea. While we understand the importance of a timely graduation for USMMA cadets, the safety of those same cadets should be your top concern. We stand ready to assist the Department in ensuring a complete educational experience and a timely graduation.”