“Ninety percent of everything” was how Rose George titled her 2013 book on the shipping industry. That is how important the world’s merchant fleet is to global trade. Yet when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, politicians the world over were seemingly unaware of the significance of cargo-ship crews’ work. Unlike cross-border lorry drivers, airline pilots, and cabin crew, seafarers were not designated as key workers – with tragic consequences for the sailors and their families in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
Stranded at sea
The travel restrictions imposed by governments around the world have made crew changes and repatriation of seafarers massively difficult. The result has been a humanitarian crisis of unheard-of proportions – and one made worse by a widespread lack of interest in the seafarers’ plight. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) estimates that around 400,000 seafarers were stranded on their ships in December 2020 – unable to make their way home and many months past the end of their original contracts. A similar number of seafarers were stuck at home, prevented from joining their ships and earning much-needed money to support their families in countries without welfare networks.
Ports closed to crews
Even in normal times, managing the crews of the world’s merchant shipping fleet is a logistical challenge. Ship- or crew-management agencies sign sailors on, fly them from their home countries to a convenient port, have them taken off their ships when their contracts end, and arrange for them to be flown home. Contracts typically last between three and nine months, with a month’s leeway either way to facilitate planning. The pandemic and the resultant restrictions totally disrupted this finely tuned management system. Some countries would accept their own citizens, but the ships they were serving on were not due to call at a suitable port and replacement crews could not be made available. In many more countries, however, the seafarers were not even permitted to go ashore and were thus imprisoned on board ship.
Innumerable human tragedies
The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) defines 11 months as the maximum time a merchant seaman may stay on board. Enforced spells of 18-26 months are now quite common, the shocking stories becoming more frequent. 19 seafarers on the bulk carrier ULA have been abandoned at the port of Shuaiba in Kuwait. They have all been on the vessel for 14 months, some for over 19 months, and one man for 26 months. They have not been paid for 11 months and their back pay now totals over $400,000. On 7 January 2021 they went on hunger strike in protest against their abandonment. Off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the five seamen stranded on the tanker IBA have not been paid for 32 months and are due around $230,000 in back pay. If they left the ship, they would lose their pay entitlement and be treated as illegal immigrants in the UAE. The IMO says cases of seafarer abandonment are at a record high, a problem exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a report on the Insurance Journal website (18 December 2020), “Covid-19 … is fuelling a worrying practice: the abandonment of ships, cargo, and seafarers with no way to get home … This year, cases of abandoned ships are up nearly 90% by even the most conservative accounting.” By December, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported over 1,000 abandoned seafarers, more than double the 2019 figure, with the number of ships affected rising year-on-year from 40 to 76.
One of the organizations helping the stranded Iba crew is the Mission to Seafarers. By mid-2020, its Seafarer Happiness Index was showing the severe impact Covid-19 is having on the welfare of international seafarers and their families. The seafarer community is “in the midst of a mental health crisis … largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home”. As early as the International Day of the Seafarer on 25 June 2020, an increasing number of suicides were being reported amongst stranded crews.
Heightened accident risk
When seafarers are stranded on a ship for so long, they become tired, miserable and lack the concentration they need for demanding work on a cargo ship. Forcing sailors to work endlessly may well turn out to be a recipe for disaster. Numerous ship’s captains have expressed their fears over the heightened accident risk. Just one mistake can cause a tanker, for example, to run aground and cause a serious oil spill.
Working to resolve the crisis
The humanitarian crisis impacting merchant crews the world over led the IMO to establish a Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT). Working with other organizations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), this team has been lobbying governments, contacting NGOs and trade unions, and offering practical assistance to thousands of seafarers. Some individuals have also taken up the struggle to relieve the seafarers’ plight. During 2020, Terence Tsai, a shipping industry analyst at Fidelity International, frequently heard reports of how the engines of global commerce had turned into floating prisons. He shared his findings with Jenn-Hui Tan, the head of Fidelity International’s Environment, Social & Governance (ESG) team. After putting together a coalition of investment companies managing almost $2 trillion of assets, they recently sent a letter to the UN calling for action to resolve the crisis. Fidelity is also pressing for seafarers to be officially designated as key workers, so they can get back to their countries of origin amid the pandemic.
A least 300 NGOs, companies, and trade unions have signed what is known as “the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change” which calls on governments to implement these protocols.
The IMO has called all its member states to designate seafarers as ʺkey workersʺ providing an essential service, in order to facilitate safe and unhindered movement for embarking or disembarking a vessel.
Seafarers should be recognized as key workers and vaccinated so that they can continue their vital work during this pandemic and transit to and from their countries of origin.
The countries that designated seafarers as key workers (state: 31.12.2020):
- Islamic Republic of Iran
- Marshall Islands
- New Zealand
- Republic of Korea
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
- United States