Shipping & Logistics

Seafarers raise concerns as tech looks set to slash jobs

Autonomous ships
Autonomous ships may soon become a reality. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Millions of seafarers around the world are facing the real prospects of job cuts in the near future as adoption of technology gathers momentum in the shipping industry.

A report on the Review of Maritime Transport 2019 by United Nation Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) has indicated that in the near future, autonomous ships, or maritime autonomous surface ships, may soon become a reality, promising to provide enhanced safety and cost savings by removing the human element from certain operations, but threatening a number of jobs.

“For instance, the safety and security of ship operations may benefit from the use of autonomous ships, since most marine accidents and liability insurance claims can be attributed to human error,” says the study

Further, the report says crew costs may decrease, and so may the risk of piracy and hostage-taking, and respective insurance premiums and costs.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) says the worldwide population of seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships is estimated at 1.6 million seafarers, of which 774,000 are officers and 873,500 are ratings (skilled workers).


Unctad notes that vessel construction and other costs may also go down, with space required for seafarer accommodation being used for cargo storage instead.

“Vessel operations may also become more environment-friendly because of the potential use of alternate fuels, zero-emission technologies, no ballast, and less garbage and sewage,” says Unctad.

However, while there are potential benefits in the automation of ships, there are also a number of challenging concerns which include cybersecurity, and safety queries related to the lack of a crew on board.

“Other challenges include the undue impacts on the prospects of employment for seafarers, many of which come from developing countries, and regulatory issues, shipping rates and insurance,” the report notes.

A recent report by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) reflected the concern of seafarers about possible job losses as autonomous ships come into being.

“...if its introduction is motivated solely by cost-cutting considerations, livelihoods and safety may be adversely affected. The use of autonomous ships will require new skills from seafarers to ensure the safety and efficiency of operations,” says the report.

“Seafarers and land-based personnel will need to improve their skills through continuous learning and training in order to keep abreast with changes in technology.”

A study by the Hamburg School of Business Administration (2018), published by the International Chamber of Shipping, also highlights the potential effects of autonomous ships on the global shipping industry and the role of seafarers.

It suggests that automation will create new but different jobs, requiring higher skills, significant training and a redefinition of the role of personnel on board and ashore.

“Automation will require less physical strength and more information, technology skills and knowledge,” it notes.

A report released last year by the International Transport Workers Federation found that, in many areas, automation in the transportation sector was likely to lead to a shift in the workforce, not in labour reduction.

Thus, it is suggested that increased levels of technology and automation will contribute significantly to increasing efficiency.

“In transportation, the highest potential for automation is in low-skilled jobs, which are intensive on predictable physical activities and data processing; therefore, those jobs face a high risk of being impacted by automation,” said the report.

The Unctad report however says that further introduction of automation will also create a demand for new types of jobs, such as remote operators, worldwide operating maintenance crews and mobility-as-a-service providers.

“As a result, the demand for labour will not completely disappear, but the requirements and skills needed for individual jobs will change,” the study says.

The report also noted that the introduction of automation in global transport will be “evolutionary, rather than revolutionary”, and that despite high levels of automation, qualified human resources with the right skill sets would still be needed in the foreseeable future.

It further notes that technological advances are inevitable, but that they will be gradual and will vary by region, and that workers will be affected in different ways, based on their skills levels and the varying degrees of preparedness of different countries.

The research, however, says technology will not entirely remove the need for human labour. For example, should a fully autonomous ship suffer system failure caused by technical defects or hackers, there would be no scope for human intervention, such as operators on board to control the ship and prevent an incident.

The human element would also remain relevant as shore-based operators and software programmers will be needed to control autonomous ships.

It appears that both autonomous and manned ships might coexist, the report asserted, and while shipmasters have the professional ability to make instant decisions based on the circumstances of saving lives at sea, for example, it is still not clear whether and how shore-based operators acting remotely would be able to take similar decisions.

“In view of past incidents where the use of autonomous vehicles has resulted in the loss of innocent lives, it is necessary that the technology be proven before autonomous ships start sailing and appropriate institutional and regulatory safeguards and frameworks be developed,” the agency says in its report.