Rotterdam, have we forgotten about the seafarers?

Maurice Jansen and Hannah Mosmans


man looking at the water
Picture credits: Latvian Shipping Company


The work of the seafarer is a forgotten and increasingly misunderstood profession. There have been socio-technological changes in port cities over recent decades, which have led to the alienation of seafarers from the citizens in port cities. This phenomenon, which we describe in our recent research study on seafarers’ wellbeing as ‘sea blindness’, has manifested itself because of several global trends: globalization, increasing economies of scale in ship size, geographical separation of port and city, as well as the privatization of public tasks (Jansen & Mosmans, 2022). Not only the ships, but also the port infrastructure and transshipment facilities have outgrown the human scale, which means most port industrial sites are fenced and closed off for the sake of efficiency and safety. Automation further eliminates the human factor from operations, which means less incidents prone to human error. Additionally, port industrial sites are fenced off for security reasons (ISPS Code), implemented after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Seafarers who arrive from the seaside have increasing difficulty accessing the landside territories of the port, and are even cut off from the outside world. In this dilemma safety and security win over seafarers' welfare. The question arises who is responsible for the welfare of seafarers, and more precisely who provides the facilities ashore to cater for their needs?

Scientific research has produced a picture of the lives of seafarers on board of ships (Zhao et al., 2021; Sampson et al., 2022; Smith & Allen, 2006). During life aboard, seafarers experience a lot of stress due to long and irregular shifts, a lack of sleep and social isolation. Seafarers lack privacy, as they stay 24/7 with the same people on a steel-framed machine. The seafarers are away from home for a long period of time: 30% of seafarers are at sea between 6 and 12 months (Seafarers Happiness Index, 2022). In addition, work on board is not without danger. Interviewed welfare workers give numerous first-hand examples and illustrations. The Seafarers Happiness Index monitors the wellbeing among seamen, and has observed a slight improvement, although corona measures by shipowners, shipping agents and some flag state authorities still place restrictions on seafarers.

The Netherlands has traditionally been a trading country, and as a maritime nation the country is strongly connected to the rest of the world through its seaports. The seaports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam are still considered to be the pillars of the Dutch economy and are strategically important turntables of international trade. Together with the other Dutch seaports (Moerdijk, Vlissingen, Terneuzen, Groningen), these ports account for 590,000,000 tons of cargo (CBS, 2022). These seaports together provide direct and indirect employment to almost 355,000 employees. On top of this, roughly 1,000,000 seafarers call the Dutch seaports with their ships on an annual basis. For the Dutch export-oriented industry, they are of vital importance for products to the world market. In scientific literature, Dutch policy documents and annual reports from port development companies, little attention goes out to seafarers, let alone their wellbeing ashore. Annual reports are full of facts and figures of cargo volumes with detailed breakdowns and trend analyses, employment, and a port’s added value, but few words are dedicated to the seaborne workforce. As shipping activities became more embedded in global value chains, the seafarer has become an insignificant but still inevitable link in the chain. Only when accidents happen, the cause is often found in ‘human error’ of the captain and his crew, without questioning whether the error has anything to do with fatigue, stress or other illnesses.

Welfare work for seafarers in port cities is deeply rooted in the maritime tradition in the Netherlands, similar as in port cities in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and the Baltics. Welfare organizations already exist since the 19th and early 20th century and often have a religious foundation. The Mission to Seafarers was for instance founded from within the Anglican Church and has been active for the welfare of seafarers since 1856, currently in 200 ports across 50 different countries. Stella Maris c.q. Apostleship of the Sea has existed since 1920 and was set up by the Roman Catholic Church with facilities in 328 ports in 54 countries. However, since the end of the 20th century seafarers’ centers gradually disappeared from the stage. Stories of seamen’s houses and red-light districts live on in the maritime heritage of port cities, but the actors have become invisible for both the general public and increasingly also for the policy makers. Rotterdam is a typical case where port and city separation went hand in hand with alienation of the seafarer. As port industrial and cargo handling facilities sought economies of scale in port territories to the west, so moved the seafarers away from the city. Consequently, distance from ship to city has become too far, necessitating seafarers’ centers to relocate as well.

It is not only geographical distance that hampers the provision of wellbeing facilities, but also the institutional distance in port cities. In our study, we have witnessed a weakening of governance structures. Whereas in the old days the port harbor master as well as shipowners used to have a seat in the board of governors, this is no longer the case in Rotterdam. Over the last thirty years, we have learned to separate public from private interests. With port reforms, port functions were separated into public and private assets and functions, leaving seafarers’ centers over to the market. Seafarers’ centers converted into maritime hotels. The Maritime Hotel in Rotterdam’s city center is a good example. In contrast to the seamen’s center in Hamburg Altona or the Antwerp Harbour Hotel, but without structural subsidies, lack of guaranteed bookings of crew stays and a distant location from the port, the Maritime Hotel in Rotterdam eventually had to close its doors.

How to solve this institutional void when both shipping companies and authorities do not consider it their responsibility? Well, there is the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC), which has been in force since 2013. The obligation for member states that arises from this convention is to provide welfare facilities both on board of ships and ashore. On board of ships, shipping companies seem to improve livability standards, according to the Seafarers’ Happiness Index. However, for shore leave there is a responsibility gap when it comes to shore-based facilities for seafarers. MLC only sets a guideline for financing the facilities for wellbeing ashore, i.e. subsidies, port call levies, or voluntary donations from shipowners, seafarers’ organizations and workers’ unions or other sources (guideline B4.4.4). In practice, this has resulted in organizations that run for a large part on volunteers and depend on a patchwork of financial arrangements, often based on occasional gifts and donations.

From our study we conclude that seamen’s centers cannot sustain themselves as private enterprises. Their visiting seafarers are not clients, but consider it their “home away from home’’. This is not something the market can provide. The same goes for providing access and mobility for shore leave. The emphasis on highly efficient and secure supply chains have made seafarers dependent on transport arrangements provided by volunteers, but with permission of (public) authorities, terminals and ship agents.

More than ever before, the trilemma between seafarers’ wellbeing versus port efficiency and port security cannot be solved by making choices between the one or the other. We are dealing here with a paradox. We need to accommodate more accessibility for seafarers to go to shore, while safeguarding restricted port territories. Such a paradox can only be solved by closer cooperation, better procedures, better alignment between policy and execution, and mindful governance. Cooperation needs to be proactive rather than reactive, pragmatic rather than problematic, one that draws from the good public-private practices in the past, but adapted to the needs of seafarers today, and obviously with financially healthy seafarers’ centers.

This blog is derived from a research study by Maurice Jansen and Hannah Mosmans, both researchers at Erasmus UPT. The research study on Seafarers’ Centers was commissioned by the Netherlands Zeevarenden Centrale (NZC) with financing from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.

Erasmus UPT is working on a research agenda for LDE PortCityFutures for human-centered port development, which addresses the need to bring back the human scale into highly industrialized, automated port territories. Technology advancements are happening so quickly that actors take such developments as a given, without comprehending the full implications for people. This research agenda will address the implications and impact of port industrial technology on port workers and seafarers. The neglect of seafarers’ wellbeing is a stain on the face for ports. A people’s port is needed to maintain visibility for new generations. By safeguarding a place for people, and taking care for people’s wellbeing in port and shipping professions, the port can become a less isolated environment to work. This is urgently needed as employability is at stake for port companies that operate and want to innovate in these remote and rather hostile port industrial places.

*) Exact figures are not available, but most seafarers arriving in Dutch ports come from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, China, the Baltics, Russia and Ukraine.


This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein, Vincent Baptist and Foteini Tsigoni.


Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (9 september 2022) ‘Zeevaart; overgeslagen gewicht, zeehaven, vervoerstroom, soort lading.

Jansen & Mosmans (2022) ‘Faciliteiten en financieringsbehoefte voor zeevarendenwelzijn in Nederlandse zeehavens, i.o.v. Nederlandse Zeevarendencentrale, Erasmus UPT

Sampson, H., Turgo, N., Cadge, W., Gilliat-Ray, S. & Smith, G. (2022): ‘Overstretched and under-resourced’: the corporate neglect of port welfare services for seafarers, Maritime Policy & Management, DOI: 10.1080/03088839.2022.2084788

International Labour Organisation (2022), Maritime Labour Convention 2006, entered into force 20 August 2013, 94th (Maritime) Session, Geneva, Switzerland

Mission to Seafarers (2022) ‘Seafarers Happiness Index Quarter 3 2022’, London, UK

Smith, A., & P. Allen. (2006). Seafarer Fatigue. The Cardiff Research Programme.

Zhao, M., Zhang, P. & He, G. (2021) Port-based welfare services for seafarers in Chinese ports: their roles, changes and challenges in Marine Policy 130, DOI 10.1016/j.marpol.2020.104190

Faciliteiten en financieringsbehoefte voor zeevarendenwelzijn in Nederlandse zeehavens (9.27 MB)