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Car carrying vessels’ fast turnaround takes its toll on the crew


Millions of vehicles produced each year are transported by purpose-built car carrying ships that can be turned around quickly. Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council confirms that as a consequence of technical, infrastructure and production changes in the industry, crew members have experienced a decline in work/life balance. Shore leave for many may amount to having time for a telephone call home at the port of destination only - before needing to set sail again.

The project, conducted by Professor Theo Nichols and Doctor Erol Kahveci, School of Social Sciences, University of Cardiff, focused on the maritime chain between the manufacturer and the consumer. It examined recent changes in the car carrying industry and the implications for operations and crew members.

“Today, car carriers can take about 7,000 cars at a time on up to 13 decks. These giant vessels, that are usually ‘flagged out’, tower out of the water and have roll on, roll off handling systems that really speed things up,” said Professor Theo Nichols. “Large capacity, quick turnaround and low manning levels may help keep costs down for the operators, but the fast pace has led to a decline in seafarers’ lives. Crew members, many of whom come from low wage countries, face fatigue, social isolation, long periods at sea and very little free time on shore.”

The research makes clear that the sector has been driven by the needs of the car manufacturers. Initially, the car carrying industry was heavily based on the export of cars from Japan, but in the last two decades, Japan has transplanted manufacturing to other countries. In addition, many car manufacturers produce different models for their range in different countries, and there has been a search for sources of cheap labour. All these factors have led to an expansion in the sea routes taken by car carrying vessels.

Car manufacturers insist on strict adherence to delivery times and car carrier companies have been driven to reduce their turnaround times. The rise of ‘just-in-time’ and lean production methods in car manufacturing have had adverse consequences for seafarers onboard car carriers whose position rates poorly in some respects with those onboard other types of vessel.

Crews from low wage countries take up the jobs because of limited employment opportunities at home, but they are also aware of the disadvantages of the work - and sometimes claim racial discrimination on board as well.

“In future, the industry’s likely to make more use of hub ports for long haul and related feeder services,” said Professor Theo Nichols. “This means crews employed on long haul routes will experience even shorter shore leave and those on the feeder services will face ever more frantic port schedules.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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