A year and more into the pandemic, there is little respite for the hundreds of thousands of seafarers trapped on their vessels. While the international community is doing what it can, the crisis is not yet over.
Many people are fortunate to have been able to work from home over the past year, but for essential workers, COVID-19 is a threat. But food, medicines, and fuel still need transported across the world.
What exactly, then, is non-essential about seafarers?
Though the international community is under considerable pressure to designate seafarers as essential workers, thereby exempting them from travel restrictions, many countries do not allow them to disembark their vessels for fear of contagion. Shipping companies often extend their work contracts to compensate – some 400,000 of them, at its peak – in many cases, to longer than a year.
This has led to a mental health emergency, with evidence of an increase in suicides. In January, a seafarer killed himself off UAE on the asphalt tanker Sea Princess, according to Human Rights at Sea, after 13 months on board.
On cruise ships, crews on some of the biggest liners thankfully fared well. Others, though, have been confined to small, often windowless cabins to prevent the spread of coronavirus, with internet and communications with loved ones not guaranteed.
Casualties included József Szaller, a Hungarian assistant shore excursion manager on Carnival Breeze, found dead in his cabin; Filipino cook, Kennex Bundaon, on Carnival’s AIDAblu; a Chinese assistant waiter on Mariner of the Seas, identified only as Wenji; a 32-year-old Filipino hotel utility employee on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady; Ukranian waitress Evgenia Pankrushyna, who leapt to her death from the deck of Regal Princess after her scheduled return flight to Kiev was cancelled; and in Greece, a Polish electrician, 27, jumped from Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas.
Protests erupted on various vessels: police were called to a protest on Mein Schiff 3; 15 Romanian crew on RCCL’s Navigator of the Seas staged a hunger strike until the company guaranteed them transit home; and on Majesty of the Seas, protesters hung a banner on the deck reading: “How many more suicides do we need?” An RCCL statement responded: “So far, we have successfully repatriated over 16,000 crew members, and we are working with governments and health authorities around the world on our plans.”
Remarked ITF Seafarers’ Section Chair, Dave Heindel, mid-last year: “Some seafarers have been onboard for more than a year, and over the course of this pandemic many have been prevented by governments from coming ashore even for a walk and, alarmingly, refused emergency medical care. Frankly, we have seafarers killing themselves at the prospect of this misery continuing without end.”
The ITF has also pointed out that some crewmembers had been aboard the Panama-flagged Wakashio for longer than a year when it grounded in Mauritius, broke in in two and spilled its oil. The captain was two months into a contract extension.
In December, the International Labour Organization (ILO) criticised the inaction of flag states over their obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC, 2006).
“The provisions of the Convention continue to be disregarded worldwide... hundreds of thousands of seafarers around the world are still on board... well beyond the default 11 months maximum period of service... with reported phenomena of physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety, sickness and even suicides.”
ILO, IMO and UN General Assembly all adopted resolutions urging that seafarers be designated ‘essential workers’, and by January 2021, 56 IMO member countries, and Hong Kong (China), had done so.
Neptune Declaration and growing support
Better news came with the Neptune Declaration, which gathered 750 signatories earlier this year to tackle the acknowledged humanitarian crisis.
The impressive list of organisations signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change with its four main actions to facilitate crew changes and keep all-important global supply chains functioning:
- Recognise seafarers as key workers and give them priority access to Covid-19 vaccines
- Establish and implement gold standard health protocols based on existing best practice
- Increase collaboration between ship operators and charterers to facilitate crew changes
- Ensure air connectivity between key maritime hubs for seafarers.
IMO, meanwhile, has chosen to make 2021 a year of action for seafarers, who are facing unprecedented hardship due to the pandemic, despite their role as key workers for global supply chains. The IMO World Maritime Theme for 2021 is ‘Seafarers: at the core of shipping's future’.
Pivotal will undoubtedly be the IMO 2021 Day of the Seafarer campaign on 25 June which “will continue to encourage governments to support seafarers amid the pandemic but will expand its message, calling for a fair future for seafarers.”
It’s not yet over for seafarers
Unfortunately, the hard times are not yet over.
The Capital Link forum in March heard that nations requiring vaccine passports will present a huge challenge for seafarers in many parts of the world. “We’re already starting to see reports of some ports that are going to be requiring people to be vaccinated... this is an ominous development if we don’t have a plan in place to get seafarers vaccinated,” said IMO legal and external affairs director Frederick Kenny.
“A vast proportion of our workforce comes from developing nations whose access to vaccines is going to be limited,” added International Chamber of Shipping secretary general Guy Platten. “I think we have a very strong case to be able to procure vaccine on behalf of our seafarers and for the industry to make sure that the resilience of the supply chain continues.”
The headlines about seafarers may have quietened down lately, but clearly there is much left to do.
The IMarEST is holding the 1st Global Conference Seafarer Mental Health & Wellbeing in May 2021, taking a practical approach to improving seafarer mental health and wellbeing. The Call for Presentations closes on 18 April 2021.
Charlie Bartlett is a journalist specialising in maritime.