Shining a light on welfare and equality

Natalie Shaw, Director of Employment Affairs at the ICS, is concerned that the sledge-hammer effects of the pandemic are eroding many years of hard work.

Hailing progress made in diversity, Natalie Shaw, Director of Employment Affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), is concerned that the sledge-hammer effects of the pandemic are eroding many years of hard work.

For management student Natalie Shaw, a summer internship at Ford Motor Company’s Halewood plant in Liverpool was the first step in what was to become a career-long passion advocating for workplace welfare and equality. From a lack of female toilet facilities to wolf-whistles on the production line, the Merseyside plant of 35 years ago was not a welcoming environment for women.

“It was only when I was transferred to Ford’s Dagenham plant and was surprised not to be wolf-whistled that I realised how normalised that culture had become,” recalls Shaw. “More women worked at Dagenham which made a real difference to the culture.”

It’s one reason why she’s a long-term supporter of initiatives to get more women into engineering. “It’s definitely changing,” she says, noting that Ford, too, is a very different organisation today. “Things are so much better.”

After 15 years working in different management and HR roles at Ford, Shaw decided it was time for a change to accommodate her interests in economics and politics. “That was when I came across the job at the International Chamber of Shipping, which was looking for someone with a practical HR background to understand the type of HR issues onboard vessels but who would also be able to effect change,” she explains.

That opportunity, to influence policy and make a difference, was certainly forthcoming in her new role. The ICS, which Shaw joined in 2003, was then involved in the discussions on the Geneva Accord and Shaw had a front-row seat in the negotiations of what was to become the International Labour Organisation’s Maritime Labour Convention in 2006, giving seafarers around the world the right to decent pay and working conditions.

It wasn’t always easy. “When I joined, I was the only woman in many meetings and some of the shipowners challenged me as they didn’t believe a woman would be strong enough to stand up to the unions,” she says. “But of course, they didn’t know I was very used to such negotiations after 15 years at Ford!”

Today, she says, many shipping companies now have women on their boards and senior management teams although there’s still a long way to go to improve diversity in the maritime sector. “Diversity just wasn’t on the maritime radar 20 years ago but now lots of people realise there are benefits in having a wider pool of talent, listening to different perspectives and how this feeds into seafarer welfare,” she says.

The latter issue is a big motivator for Shaw, who in January 2022 was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List for services to seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic, when as many as 400,000 were stranded around the world with some forced to remain on ships for up to two years. As the ICS Director of Employment Affairs, Shaw acted as the lynchpin for diplomatic, logistical and operational efforts to navigate the wave of COVID restrictions preventing the free movement of seafarers, enabling hundreds of thousands of men and women to return safely home, often against seemingly insurmountable odds.

MP LongRead 070322

While the pandemic may have created its own unique pressures for seafarers, in many ways, Shaw stresses, it was just shining a light on welfare issues that were already prevalent across the industry. Addressing these issues will be key as the industry seeks to recover from the disruption and dislocation of the past two years, with Shaw particularly worried about the impact on cadets and younger seafarers, many of whom have had their training and early careers adversely affected by COVID-19.

“Some cadets have dropped out and there’s no guarantee they will return,” worries Shaw. “The pandemic has taken a sledgehammer to all the efforts to encourage younger people to join the industry and I’m concerned there could be a big demographic timebomb going forward.”

And while much of the world strives to get back to normal, Shaw says the pandemic continues to require a lot of her time. “On a daily basis, there are still a lot of issues we are having to deal with,” she says, highlighting ongoing discussions around crew changes as well as producing COVID-19 medical guidance and vaccination roadmaps for crews.

She still looks back to her days at Ford, which provided an excellent grounding for working with ships. “If I had come straight from a traditional HR strategy or trade association type role and hadn’t had that background, where I had to react quickly to issues, I think I would have struggled in this role,” she says. “Every day here is different, every day is a learning experience and dealing with the unexpected.” 

Shaw is now having to face new crewing challenges arising from the Black Sea Crisis. It is early days but she recognises the potential impact on seafarers health and welfare in coming months and is once again working with the various UN agencies and welfare bodies to do all she can to ensure appropriate protocols are put in place for affected seafarers.  

She does have one regret. “I wish I had gone to sea first!” she says. “It would have given me a good understanding of life onboard, which would have made this job easier.”

With plenty of seagoing experience now, her advice to those joining the industry is to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. “It can be a lonely existence so be proactive and get involved,” she says. “And if things aren’t going well, speak to someone, ask for a mentor who can give you coaching and guidance and never be frightened to make changes and ask questions.”

Natalie Shaw, MBE, still making waves.


Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day. Twitter  @AmyMcLellan2