U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, Deputy Secretary Trottenberg and MARAD Acting Administrator Lessley met with leaders from the U.S. Coast Guard, maritime industry and labor on October 20 to discuss concrete steps to protect the safety of merchant mariners and midshipmen, ensure an inclusive environment in the mariner workforce, and create cultural change to support the future of the U.S. merchant marine. The meeting took place alongside the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) and USTRANSCOM conference.
Earlier in the day the Secretary addressed a plenary session of the NDTA conference saying:
“I want to address something just as important as our physical infrastructure: and that is our people. Our current challenges and opportunities aren’t just about ships, trucks, and trains – they’re about engineers, drivers, and mariners. We need to make sure we are supporting good working conditions, competitive pay, and excellent training and career development for people at every level and in every part of our transportation systems.
“It’s also one more reason why gender equity matters. We cannot remain the leading power in the world if we are only drawing from the brilliance, experience, and courage of half our people. And we can’t expect other countries to heed our calls for human rights if we don’t lead by example here…today I want to make clear a particular focus that requires our immediate attention.
“For far too long, sexual assault in the maritime shipping industry has been an open secret, affecting the industry as a whole, and the U.S. merchant marine in particular. So, I want to directly address reports we’ve seen recently about sexual assault impacting the U.S. merchant marine. It’s critical—but not enough — for a company, agency, or government to say that there is zero tolerance for harassment and assault. It’s critical—but not enough — to say that allegations are taken seriously, or to point to training and reporting systems that are in place. This commitment must be matched by concrete, deliberate action. That means tearing down any and all barriers that prevent survivors from reporting these incidents. It means holding perpetrators accountable. And most important of all, it means preventing assault and harassment from happening in the first place. That’s not just a matter of policy, it’s a matter of culture.
“I’m raising it with this audience because I know that much of the leadership that can help to drive that culture change is right here at this convening.
“All of us—government, military, and private sector—have an obligation to work together to usher in that change. If we are to maintain the greatest transportation system in the world, men and women in the U.S. merchant marine—and in the maritime industry writ large, must be safe and respected, from their first day at an academy or in any training or apprentice program and throughout their entire careers, afloat and ashore.
“We count on our mariners and the people of our transportation and logistics industries today, more than ever. Which means we must support these Americans – as workers, and as people. It’s a moral imperative, a national security imperative, and an economic imperative. Especially at a time when it is so profoundly important to our future that we effectively recruit and support the people who represent the next generation of the merchant marine and the rest of our transportation leadership.
“The ability to move goods, people, and material across the country is fundamentally important to our economy. The right investments, in our infrastructure and in our people, will lay the groundwork for a generation of renewed economic prosperity— so that every user, of every part, of every one of our transportation systems—commercial, military, and civilian—can travel quickly and safely.
“I’m looking forward to working with all of you to unlock the full potential of these historic investments, and create a transportation system that supports our economy and our national security for generations to come.”
In the smaller meeting that followed, participants underscored their commitment to creating a safe environment, including by working to eliminate sexual violence and harassment. Participants concurred that this view of safety should apply from the moment cadets enter the academy to the time they retire.
Participants agreed that statements of zero tolerance are a starting point but that more work needed to be done to bring that commitment to life, to change culture and make it safer for cadets and for women throughout the industry.
The group discussed potential solutions including making it easier for cadets to report sexual assault in a secure and confidential manner; mandatory check-ins for students early and often; and ways to enhance background checks for staff aboard ships. The group agreed to continue these conversations and to work together going forward to address these urgent challenges.