Since crew changes are largely limited out of safety concern, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 seafarers are currently trapped on the sea, facing the threat of mental fatigue and physical exhaustion. Despite much attention to cruise tourists at the beginning of the pandemic, few spotlights had been given to the cruise staff and seafarers stranded on the sea.
“We want to go home,” Mr. Gandhi, a 38-year-old seafarer, accused the government in a phone interview, “They want the oil. They want no delays…but when it comes to us, that’s where they have a problem.”
Key workers to the world
During the pandemic, seafarers keep working to ensure the global supply chain and transporting critical medical goods. From the food on the table to raw materials in industry, 90% of the world’s trade is transported by ships. Without the contribution of seafarers, it would be even harder for the world to cope with the crisis.
However, seafarers are not receiving the support they deserve. Governments want to keep the global shipping network working, but refuse to offer support to the key workers. Ports have prohibited crew changes in fear of the Coronavirus. Many seafarers have no choice but to work after their contract expired because they are refused to disembark.
Usually, seafarers spend 3-9 months onboard, and rest for the same amount of time back home. The regular crew change is critical as it is designed to avoid fatigue. However, being rejected by ports around the world, some seafarers were stranded at sea for 15 months, well exceeding the maximum sea time (11 months) regulated in international conventions.
The mental and physical well-being of seafarers has become a major concern. “It’s clear that they are getting very tired. And when you get tired you make mistakes which can be dangerous.” said Mr.Westgarth, chief executive of U.K.-based V Group, one of the world’s biggest crewing companies.
Seafarers feel that they are left behind. It is challenging for some seafarers to receive fresh food and water supplies. Basic facilities such as the internet are out of their reach. The hard life becomes even more intolerable when they had to stop their counting down to home and started counting on uncertainties.
The levels of depression, anxiety, and the rate of suicide are relatively high among the seafarers considering the long-time isolation on the sea. There is also a link between seafarers’ mental health and the likelihood of injury and illness on board.
Under huge uncertainties, seafarers are reported to have experienced difficulties in maintaining morale and focusing on the job, which poses a risk for their safety. The shipping industry is already dangerous: a study done in Britain suggested that the fatal accident rate in shipping is 21 times higher than that in the general workforce.
The restrictions are stretching resilient seafarers to the breaking point. On June 9, Mariah Jocson, a 28-year-old crew worker, committed suicide in her cabin after months of waiting. The concern about the most vulnerable potentially resorting to self-harm and suicide is increasing.
Infected seafarers on board also deserve more attention since they don’t have access to intensive care and ventilation. It is the same for crew members with other health conditions. They are forced to stay on board without proper medical treatment.
While those who are trapped on the ships cannot go back home under the restrictions, those waiting to go back to work have lost their income, and are under dire financial stress currently. Seafarers in India are at risk of losing their non-resident Indian(NRI) status that grants them the tax-free status of foreign income, because they are not likely to meet the requirement of staying 184 days outside India in a year.
Urging for action
Seafarers have been pleading for help since months ago, however, limited progress has been made and the situation is worsening, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
International organizations are adding pressure on the governments to make seafarers as “key personnel”. The designation can exempt seafarers from travel restrictions, facilitate crew changes, and ensure emergency medical treatment to infected crew members.
The ILO has urged governments, immigration, health and maritime authorities to take immediate action to facilitate crew changes and minimize the risk of contagion. “Forcing exhausted seafarers to continue working more than four months beyond the end of their contract is unacceptable”, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) issued a joint statement in support of “keeping ships moving, ports open and crown-border trade flowing” during the pandemic, saying “we are all in the same boat” in an interconnected world.
Ship: To monitor the health of seafarers prior to disembarkation to endeavor to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, they are healthy before disembarkation from the ship.
Seaport: To manage the disembarkation of seafarers and to control the risk of seafarer being infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19), or infecting other persons, during or following disembarkation.
Airport of departure: To manage seafarers at airports who are traveling to be repatriated in their country of residence, and to control the risk of seafarers becoming infected with COVID-19, or infecting other persons, while in the airport of departure and to facilitate their safe travel by aircraft.
Aircraft: To manage seafarers on board aircraft and to control the risk of seafarers becoming infected with COVID-19 or infecting other persons in-flight.
Airport of arrival: To manage safe crew travel for repatriation and to control the risk of seafarers becoming infected with COVID-19 at the airport of arrival, or infecting other person, and facilitate their onward travel for repatriation to their place of ordinary residence.
Place of ordinary residence: To ensure that seafarers comply with applicable national or local requirements or guidance related to the control of the coronavirus (COVID-19) after completion of their repatriation to their ordinary place of residence.
Some governments took actions. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore had created procedures for “safe corridor” and have facilitated over 4,000 crew changes at their ports. Hong Kong has also loosened the restrictions. Unrestricted crew changes are allowed with no quarantine requirements attached. The United Kingdom also exempt seafarers from the travel restrictions and quarantine. However, a global solution has not been found.
A threat to world trade
Seafarers are losing their patience, at a potential cost of disrupting of global trade. On June 15, ITF sent a message to seafarers around the globe, saying “Enough is enough.” It also added that ITF will do everything to assist seafarers to exercise their right to stop working, leave ships, and return home.
“We have received thousands of messages that unequivocally indicate that seafarers want to leave the ships.” said Barcellona, assistant secretary of ITF’s seafarer section. ITF and its affiliates will negotiate with authorities in the port state and assist crew changes when ships arrive at the port. If the negotiation does not succeed before the next sailing day, seafarers are encouraged to stay onboard “as a passenger” instead of a worker.
A most extreme scenario would be that as contracts expire, more and more crew stop to work and ships has to sailing with insufficient active crew, until the governments are compelled to lift the restrictions due to the severe consequence for world trade.