Making a formal complaint about a crew member.

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Q: Andrea, 28, Chief Stewardess:

“I’ve recently joined a large charter yacht as chief stew, and have inherited an extremely difficult situation with a chef who is manipulative and verbally abusive. He’s thrown food at me, called us all incompetent, and much worse things than this. However, when the captain or first officer are present he’s as sweet as pie—and the boss loves his cooking. The interior team are also brand new and don’t know how to handle this, and the girls are considering quitting after this charter as they fear going near the galley. I know that chefs are quite protected in yachting, but surely this is just totally unacceptable. I want to write a formal complaint and I mentioned this to the Captain already— but I’m not sure how to go about it and who I can turn to for help. Can you advise?”

A: The Crew Coach:

What a dreadful situation for you – and what entirely unacceptable behaviour from the chef! This is bullying, plain and simple. However, it sounds like you’re strong enough to forge the right path through this, and well done for reaching out. You’re right that chefs are sometimes protected in yachting, normally in situations where the boss really loves their food and has made it clear to the captain that the chef needs to stay. This occasionally leads to certain chefs feeling they’re untouchable, and in difficult personalities like the one you’re facing, this can lead to some truly awful behaviour, such as the bullying you and your team are facing.

I myself have been the victim of a bullying chef like this, who both burnt my hands with boiling water and even locked me in the dry stores cupboard in the bilges under the galley floor! She was the Captain’s wife and the owners loved her, so there really was no recourse for action but to leave, for me in that situation unfortunately.

Of course, it’s not just chefs this happens with: it can be anyone with a favoured status. As for the Captain, you say that the chef is ‘sweet as pie’ when he is around, but unless the chef is a master of deception, there’s a very strong likelihood that the captain knows full well what’s happening, but feels powerless or is unwilling to step in due to the favoured status of the chef with the boss. Of course, it may be just that they’re friends, or that the captain doesn’t truly see much wrong with the chef’s bullying behaviour. You need to know which it is.

You mention that you’ve talked to the captain about wanting to make a complaint – what was his/her reaction? Were they understanding and supportive, or dismissive or even hostile? Your decision about your future on the yacht should really follow from the tone of the captain’s response, as his reaction feeds directly into the culture of the yacht and your ongoing respect for him if you decide to stay.

This is not an easy situation for you and your team. Luckily, there are quite a few options available to you in how to proceed. As a charter yacht, your vessel falls under the Maritime Labour Convention, which has very clear guidance and complaints procedures against bullying and harassment on yachts.

Your Seafarer’s Employment Agreement (the contract you signed upon joining) should have a clear complaints process set out. If you were not offered a contract, that is an extremely strong warning signal that the yacht does not acknowledge or honour its legal obligations and is not a good employer to continue your career with.
If your boat is managed, you can register a complaint with the DPA: the designated person ashore. The details should be listed at various points around the yacht, if you can’t find them, just call the yacht management company and they’ll direct you.
If your yacht is not managed, or if you feel the management company has not taken sufficient action, you can register your complaint with the yacht’s ship registry/flag state. The details should be listed in your contract or alternatively can be found on the flag state’s website.
You don’t have to go through this alone. The best group to advise you on how to proceed in making a formal complaint is the Professional Yachting Association.
Your captain must allow you to make a complaint as the yacht is a charter yacht and therefore required to comply with the terms of the MLC. If the captain does not allow you to make a formal complaint, go over his/her head to the DPA or flag state. If your captain does oppose your right to make a complaint, I would advise leaving the yacht as the captain is behaving illegally and is likely to be cutting corners in other legal and safety matters.
Keep a record. Your case will be strengthened if you log the cases of verbal and physical abuse. Get the girls to record verbally or write witness statements when something happens, and photograph any evidence where food has been thrown at you or if you suffer any injuries. You may also wish to record conversations that happen in the galley: in most countries, recording conversations without consent is not illegal, although there are regional differences in whether the recordings can be used in legal proceedings. Regardless, such recordings and other evidence make an extremely strong argument to present to the captain, management, or the flag state.
Contact the crew agent who placed you and have a confidential discussion. They need to know about this situation, and may be able to give you some good advice on how to proceed (not to mention treat you well if you decide to find a new job.) If your crew agent is anything but supportive when you tell them, I suggest finding a new crew agent, as their ethics about their responsibilities to the crew they place are questionable.
If, when you present your case to the captain (preferably with a log of incidents), he doesn’t react supportively and immediately fire the chef, I strongly suggest that you resign and leave this yacht off your CV as you have only been there a short time and you don’t want the lack of longevity to unfairly reflect badly on you. Your crew agent should be extremely willing to help you find a great new opportunity.
I wish you the absolute best in resolving this issue. Please stay in touch and let me know how you get on.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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