Pregnancy and motherhood are an exciting time. From the early weeks to child birth, miraculous hormonal and physical changes occur in a woman’s body. And while this is a significant journey, pregnancy on board is often a vulnerable and unvoiced time for many female crew. This article is a tribute to all the women who contributed and made their silent stories heard.
Full-term pregnancy is considered anything between 39-41 weeks. The United Nations provides for a minimum of 16 weeks maternity leave at 100% pay for new mothers, who can stop work from around the 34th week (six weeks before due date). In the UK for example, a woman’s job will be kept open for 52 weeks of maternity leave.
But when it comes to the unpredictable employment conditions of work at sea, there are very few clear-cut interpretations of the facts around crew pregnancy on board. Currently, it is advised that expectant mothers stop work at 24 weeks - 10 weeks before their land-based counterparts.
More concerning for expectant crew mothers and their partners is the lack of any standardised recourse on maternity benefit, such as pre- and post-natal medical cover and maternity leave.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer,” admits Danny McGowan of Nautilus International, the only trade union and professional organisation working in the large yacht sector. “A stumbling block is the often loose terms under which a seafarer’s employment can be terminated.”
Nautilus International offers assistance to 22,000 seafarers worldwide, with a forum for female seafarers who meet regularly to discuss any industry matters that affect them.
“At this moment in time, the majority of the financial obligations fall on the seafarer,” says McGowan. “The employer has the duty to protect the seafarer and her unborn child while she is at work, but few employers will include maternity assistance within their terms of employment.”
With the recent implementation of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006, women seafarers are protected by specific mention of maternity benefit in Standard A4.5.1. This introduces nine different social security benefits, including family and maternity benefit.
Currently, flag states are only expected to provide three of the nine branches on a pick-and-mix basis. Two flag states which have included maternity benefit are the United Kingdom and Isle of Man. Other popular flag states like Cayman Islands and Malta and have not expressly adopted maternity benefit under the MLC.
Safety First: Mum-Baby Health On Board
It can be argued that the luxury yachting industry strongly favours those who are fit for work, with a greyer forecast for crew dealing with old-age, maternity, family and illness benefit. While pregnancy should not be equated with ill-health, conditions on board can be a struggle for pregnant mothers, who require a safe working environment and regular access to health care throughout their pregnancies.
For both employer and employee, the safety of the mother and her unborn child should always come first.
The Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) provides some practical insight on the protection of new and expectant mothers at sea with MGN 522. Although this is a guidance note to UK-flagged or UK-based vessels, many flag states, especially Red Ensign Group states, will base their regulations on those of the UK.
MGN 522 advises that the normal date to stop work for expectant mothers employed at sea is 24 weeks. It makes careful mention of the hazards at sea that may put an expectant mother at risk, including whole body vibration, night work, physical work and exposure to chemical agents.
Should a crew member wish to work on board after 24 weeks, certain criteria need to be met including: a) that the crew member is not employed on trips of more than two hours long, b) that she is able to attend appropriate medical check-ups during work hours and c) that she has no emergency or muster duties.
A crew member who falls pregnant and already holds a valid ENG 1 certificate should notify their change of fitness status to an approved doctor and undergo another medical consultation before continuing with work on board.
“A seafarer can obtain an ENG 1 while pregnant, within the limitations explained in MGN 522,” announces Samantha Sinclair on behalf of the Chief Medical Advisor for the MCA.
If there is any doubt of the crew member’s fitness to continue work, an ENG 3 is issued which can be appealed in the normal way.
“Be realistic and think of your health, the baby's health and the overall yacht's wellbeing,” argues Jenny*, a crew mum who raised her child on board for the first few years and dealt with many crew pregnancies over her time in the industry. “It's not fair to put the yacht in a position where you go into labor three months early while the yacht is doing a crossing.”
The First Trimester: Medical Check-Ups and Telling the Crew
The early days of pregnancy are an important time for medical support but are also delicate for the announcement of pregnancy. Women typically start to ‘show’ at around 12-16 weeks, leading into their second trimester.
South African Sarah* was working on board as first mate when she and her captain boyfriend fell pregnant. The world-cruising yacht had a strict no couples policy at the time. “If the owners found out, we’d be fired,” explains Sarah, who had to move onto the interior and stop working with any solvents and dangerous materials.
The move from deck to interior already raised a few suspicions among the close-knit crew. “It was hard as I was a drinker and a smoker and I knew if I stopped, people would notice.”
Shortly after the couple discovered they were pregnant, the yacht set off on a month-long charter in the Caribbean. This made it difficult for Sarah to find sufficient medical care or go for regular check-ups during her first trimester, often a time symptomatic of tiredness, morning sickness and back pain.
Yachts cruising in more remote destinations are ill-equipped to deal with complications from pregnancy or get medical care ashore. “The medical facilities in the Caribbean are atrocious,” says Jenny, whose pregnant second stew fell dangerously ill while the boat was cruising in Saint Martin. The stew had to be flown to the United States for emergency medical care.
“There really doesn’t appear to be any support for pregnant crew,” explains Sarah. “You simply get told ‘we’ll find another [stewardess] in Fort Lauderdale, Antibes or Palma. Good luck.’”
36-year-old Monica* was faced with a similar experience while working on board a couple friendly, 40m charter yacht. After telling her captain and management company six weeks into her pregnancy, Monica was slowly and uncomfortably pushed out of her job at 16 weeks, with no medical cover, accrued leave pay or repatriation pay.
It was a trying time to be faced with the reality of unemployment and a baby on the way. Monica’s husband stayed on board in an effort to keep their household income safe while she made the move back home to Canada.
“The financial situation is very hard for him as well,” explains Monica. “He is now faced with a choice: work on a yacht to support his family but never be at home; or stay home and earn a fraction of what he earns on yachts but at least be there for his family. Neither choice is ideal.”
Nautilus argues that any female seafarer dismissed or treated unfairly as a result of being pregnant has suffered discrimination. “This is a serious issue of law,” says McGowan. “On UK-flagged vessels, this would be considered under the Equality Act 2010.”
The Seafarer’s Employment Agreement (SEA) or ‘crew contract’ is a legally enforceable document which can provide some recourse in the event of pregnancy but this is not common. Nautilus acts as an advisory to crew before they sign their SEA, an important process to ascertain which social benefits are, and are not, included by the yacht and her management.
The difficulty in dealing with crew pregnancy often stems from a complete lack of understanding about what pregnancy is and how pregnant mothers can easily be included in the crew workplace. The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide gives some general guidance on female health and childbirth, although this is not at all comprehensive.
Empathetic and open dialogue on the topic is a short-fall on the crew management side of the industry.
“I felt if I said anything about being tired or my knees hurting, it would reinforce that I was pregnant and unable to handle the job,” explains Monica. “So I said nothing because I felt that I was going to lose my job at any moment.”
While a busy charter yacht, or yacht with an erratic itinerary, might not provide the best support for pregnant crew, there are situations where pregnancy on board fits in well: yachts in port over the off-season, or yachts willing to let pregnant crew work in less physical departments or in administrative roles ashore.
“When I told my captain he was thrilled for me,” explains Lee*. “We were in port for the winter with no charters, so it was safe for me to work. And when the owner heard why I was leaving, he was full of congratulations and wished me well.”
Canadian Robyn* was working as sole stewardess on a 25m private yacht based in the south of France when she fell pregnant. “I had an amazing experience being pregnant on board! The owners weren’t over the moon but they accepted it.” Robyn worked up until 32 weeks and received a full year’s maternity leave while her husband continued to work in the industry.
Who Foots the Bill: Medical Care and Maternity Leave
The big question that always comes up is: who should pay for the pre-natal care?
Crew tend to earn well but it is uncommon for crew to pay for medical insurance over-and-above the cover provided by the yacht. In instances where pregnancy is planned, crew should take out additional cover and factor in maternity saving.
“If a UK seafarer has paid their national insurance contributions, they will be entitled to receive statutory maternity pay in the UK, which is provided by the government,” argues McGowan.
Col, Colleen Dickerson's baby boy onboard
According to Nautilus, seafarers who work on vessels that remain in France all year, are treated by the French authorities as French workers, regardless of the flag of the vessel or the nationality of the seafarer.
Robyn was not on local French medical cover when she fell pregnant and had not paid contributions to her national health insurance back home. She ended up paying for all doctor’s appointments and blood tests out of her own pocket, while saving the crew medical insurance for the child’s birth in France.
“My crew medical insurance would cover up to around €5,500,” says Robyn. “I ended up having an emergency C-Section which cost around €8,000. It was a non-elective C-Section so the insurance company ended up covering it all.”
It is unusual for crew to be kept on the yacht’s medical insurance once the crew member has left the yacht. However, “It would make sense if there was some sort of severance package,” argues Monica. “At least something for those employees who have shown longevity and worked well on board before they fell pregnant.”
The Reality of Pregnancy at Sea
While we might be quick to applaud the luxury yachting industry for its career freedom and financial advantages, we also need to accept its shortcomings, as sluggishly the industry tries to keep up with advances made in land-based employment equity. MLC 2006 and MGN 522 might just be paper tigers for crew pregnancy; laws and guidelines that advocate the protection of female crew but fall flat in their application.
In the end, pregnant mothers themselves will continue to put their health and that of their unborn child above the failings of an industry at large.
* Names changed for privacy
Nautilus International has over 22000 members worldwide. All seafarers - and those working shoreside - in the large yacht sector are encouraged to join us. We are the only trade union and professional organisation for those working in this sector. Contact: [email protected]; [email protected]
Bianca Ljungberg/TheSwedishAfrican is an ex-deckhand turned Pilates practitioner who works regularly with pregnant women in the yachting industry. She owns and runs the CREW Pilates studio in Antibes, France where she lives with her Swedish husband. Contact: CREW Pilates [email protected]
Baby on Board: The Benbrooks