They Keep Global Trade Afloat – Now 400,000 Seafarers, Stranded Since the Start of the Pandemic, Just Want to Go Home
We’re exhausted, we’ve been working non-stop for months,” says Vij*, the captain of an oil tanker currently stranded in Malaysian waters. “Most of the contracts have been extended more than once and the crew has no other option but to wait to be allowed ashore,” he tells Equal Times. “Several people have been on the ship for more than a year.”
Crew changes were suspended in March (due to the coronavirus pandemic) in order to avoid supply chain disruptions, as more than 80 per cent of the world’s trade is carried by sea. Worldwide border closures, travel restrictions and the disruption of commercial flights to contain the virus have prevented Vij, a native of India, and his crew from setting foot on dry land.
According to estimates by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, 400,000 seafarers and port workers are currently stranded. They are facing physical and mental exhaustion, and repatriation to their home countries has become a matter of urgency. A similar number of people are waiting on land to board ships and relieve those currently at sea.
Some people have spent up to 17 months at high sea, as the IMO report confirms. This is illegal under Maritime Labour Convention of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which sets the maximum continuous period a seafarer should serve aboard a ship at 11 months.
“Since March, we have received more than 5,200 emails from seafarers desperate to get off ships, an estimated more than 2,000 requests for help through Facebook, and more than 500 messages via Whatsapp,” says Fabrizio Barcellona, assistant secretary of the seafarers section of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
The situation has led to a “humanitarian and safety crisis,” about which both António Guterres, the UN secretary general, and Pope Francis have spoken out. While restrictions in many countries have been eased to some extent following the international maritime summit held in London in July, as the recent World Maritime Day Summit on 24 September made clear, the problem is still far from being resolved – and time is running out.
In a joint letter addressed to Guterres, senior officials from 30 consumer goods companies call for immediate action on crew changes, describing a situation that has “also inadvertently created a modern form of forced labour”.
“Seafarers are still facing the same challenges that they were at the beginning of the pandemic: extended contracts due to the lack of repatriation possibilities, longer working hours due to a lack of inspections […]. In addition, seafarers do not have access to shore leave and, in some cases, they have even been denied emergency medical treatment,” explains Barcellona.
Restrictions on crew changes
For months, international organisations and even shipping companies have been lobbying governments to designate seafarers as ‘key workers’ regardless of their nationality. This would exempt them from visa requirements and allow them to travel to and from ships.
The IMO has also proposed a series of safe disembarkation protocols for use by ports, airports, health, customs and immigration authorities, and governments. So far, only 15 countries worldwide have opened their ports and followed the protocols. Now, some are tightening restrictions again in response to the anticipated second wave of the virus.
“A second wave could result in the continued denial of the basic rights of seafarers in order to maintain commercial activity,” says Barcellona. “Unfortunately, some governments are backtracking in their implementation of the crew change protocols,” he warns.
For example, the association InterManager has criticised Singapore for its recent decision to give priority to crew change applications from ships registered in that country and only to applications for signing off crews without signing on new ones.
For its part, Hong Kong has limited crew changes to ships that import and export cargo from its territory, and has reinstated airport restrictions. This makes things difficult, as crew changes are complex processes and the majority of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers come from the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Russia, Ukraine and India.
“We have seen several countries introduce incredibly narrow windows, of 48 hours for example, for a merchant ship to enter a berth with a new crew from other parts of the world. Given the shortage of direct flights, this policy alone could prevent thousands of crew changes,” says Barcellona.
Exhaustion and risk of accidents
Under normal circumstances, being a seafarer involves tasks that require constant concentration and long days that range from 10 to 12 hours, seven days a week, with little in the way of social life. Add to this the exhaustion, fatigue and anxiety of not knowing when they will return home and the result is an exponential increase in the risk of maritime accidents.
“Ships with fatigued seafarers cannot operate indefinitely,” Natasha Brown, head of public information services at the IMO, tells Equal Times. “The situation is unsustainable, both for the safety and wellbeing of the seafarers as well as for the safe operation of maritime trade.”
According to the IMO, the increasing fatigue of seafarers also threatens the security of shipping and the uninterrupted flow of supply chains, which transport everything from raw materials to medical supplies. Commercial fishing is facing a similar problem, which puts food security at risk.
“When ships are held up, so is everything else,” says Marc Engel, chief supply chain officer at Unilever, one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies. “We are approaching a turning point which could impact the economy and push companies and countries to the limit.”
Vij is well aware of the risk. “My role as captain is to keep up morale and ensure that people are not mentally stressed,” says the captain, who has 40 people in his charge. “We have daily meetings to motivate the crew. Most of them need to go home for fear of the coronavirus…their families insist that they return as soon as possible.”
To pass their free time on the ship, the crew has organised table tennis, basketball and cricket tournaments. It keeps them distracted. But they can’t help but get frustrated, especially when quarantine and visa regulations change suddenly with little coordination between countries. “In Malaysia, for example, even if you have a negative Covid certificate, you still have to spend 14 days in quarantine before taking a flight to your country of origin, followed by 14 days in your country of origin,” Vij explains.
Crews themselves are increasingly refusing to extend their contracts. This was the case on the ship Marvin Confidence, which was in Chile when a crew member became ill and after many difficulties was able to dock in Panama when the crew refused to continue working under such conditions and exercised their right to request assistance.
Those who remain ashore: “When will I go back to work?”
The crisis has many dimensions and the number of stranded seafarers reflects an equal number of people who are currently unable to make a living. The fatigue is also evident in those who are stuck at home, without employment, and in many cases without aid, waiting to relieve their fellow seafarers.
“I planned on joining the ship in March, but my contract was postponed because the flights were cancelled and border closures began on 26 March 2020 in my country, Bangladesh,” says Mohin U, an able seaman. He is now unemployed until further notice and says he feels powerless. “Governments aren’t interested in the situation of foreign sailors and there’s nothing we can do about it from here.”
A survey conducted by the maritime organisation Stella Maris of 363 participating seafarers, mostly from the Philippines, indicates the scope of the impact: 69 per cent of participants said that Covid-19 had economically impacted their lives “a lot” or “very much”. In addition to merchant ships and fishing vessels, this also applies to the cruise industry, which has 70,000 seafarers awaiting repatriation and is currently facing the titanic challenge of regaining its customers’ confidence.
“The inability of governments to find an adequate and coherent solution to the problem of crew changes and the expected second wave of the virus could result in many seafarers opting for different professions, which could lead to crew shortages in the near future,” says Barcellona.
“When the coronavirus began, I was on board and felt that the ship was the safest place in the world,” says seafarer Amit Schedge via telephone from a cruise ship. “My contract ended on 30 May, it was extended and I am still in Sweden, on board.” Fatigue has taken its toll and now all he can think about is returning to India, hopefully next week. But the feeling is bittersweet, he says, because while he is looking forward to returning to his loved ones, he doesn’t know when he will sign his next contract.
Meanwhile, as this article goes to press, Captain Vij and his crew are still trying to get ashore, spend two weeks in quarantine in a hotel in Malaysia, a country they do not know, after which Vij will spend another 14 days in a hotel in India before finally being able to join his family. “It’s a battle of mental endurance,” he says.
Cristina Belda Font, a Spanish journalist, is currently doing a master’s degree in Journalism, Media and Globalisation at City University London. She has worked with various publications and think tanks such as Huffington Post, El País and the Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales (CARI), etc. You can follow her on Twitter: @belda_font
This article has been translated from Spanish.
*Several names and positions have been changed or omitted from this article to protect the anonymity of those interviewed.