restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic have left seafarers stranded at sea,
at heightened risk of infection, or trapped onshore facing financial
100,000 seafarers need to rotate on and off ships to comply with the Maritime
Labour Convention. To keep the fleet of 50,000 to 60,000 vessels moving, the
industry has imposed a one-month extension on all seafarer contracts that
expired in March. That extension, however, is almost up and it is still not
clear when seafarers will be allowed to go home.
‘Impending crisis’ for global trade; we need seafarers to keep the
“The problem is
simplistic, but the solution is complex,” said Guy Platten, Secretary-General
of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). Last month the ICS issued a
call to the Group of 20 coalition of nations to allow seafarers to freely move.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) made a similar
plea for restrictions to be lifted to maintain global cross-border trade.
Platten told Al
Jazeera that he fears travel restrictions will persist even when countries
start to relax domestic lockdowns. “This is an impending crisis. We’ve got to
start getting governments to classify seafarers as essential workers. We need
these people to keep the world supplied.”
For a lot of shipowners, crew, the last thing on their minds,
“For a lot of
shipowners, crew tends to be the last thing on their minds,” said Steve
Trowsdale, the inspectorate coordinator for the International Transport
Workers’ Federation (ITF). “We think we’ve got problems with goods on shelves
now. What do you think will happen if ships stop delivering goods?”
The industry is
already feeling the squeeze. Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam in the
Netherlands, reported an “unprecedented” decline in first-quarter throughput
figures, which measure the volume of goods passing through the port. In a
statement, Rotterdam port chief executive Allard Castelein said he expected
full-year throughput to fall by up to one fifth. The port of Los Angeles in the
United States saw March throughput plunge 30 percent on the previous year,
while Singapore and Hong Kong reported similar declines.
Ltd’s codirector Tim Huxley said crew change restrictions had led to sailing
cancellations and employment delays. Dario Alampay, chairman of the Filipino
Shipowners Association, expects fewer available ships and higher freight costs.
Some hope on the horizon
There is some hope
on the horizon. Last week, an alliance of shipowners that includes Grieg Star,
Wilhelmsen Ships Service, and Synergy Group came together to pressure
governments. The alliance, which represents 1,500 vessels and 70,000 seafarers,
is now identifying ports where crew changes could be safely carried out.
I don’t want to bring any hazard home says Poland officer, 36
Speaking to Al
Jazeera over the phone from onboard, Stanislaw, a 36-year-old officer from
Poland who asked not to be identified by his real name ,said he preferred to
remain at sea rather than risk infection on the journey home. “I would have to
cross through airports, where there is a lot of risk. I don’t want to bring any
At Rio Haina in
the Dominican Republic, although port officials requested his ship be
thoroughly sanitised before docking, the pilots who boarded to inspect the ship
were not sufficiently equipped with gloves and masks.
touching everything. What’s the point?” asked Stanislaw.
“They ask us to
keep the ship to ‘hospital standard,’ but nobody protects us from their
stupidity. We’re not the hazard for them; they’re the hazard for us.”
Onboard a ship, the coronavirus travels fast
Onboard a ship,
the coronavirus travels fast. An outbreak on the American military vessel USS
Theodore Roosevelt resulted in a death on April 14th. And before COVID-19 had
even reached Europe, the spread of the virus on cruise ships was dominating
headlines. More than 1,000 sailors assigned to a French aircraft carrier tested
positive for the coronavirus in April. French military officials believe
sailors contracted the virus after they disembarked for shore leave at the port
of Brest shortly before France’s lockdown.
It is not only
those at sea who are affected. Seafarers are employed on a “per voyage” basis, earning
only as long as they are on board. Thousands are currently under lockdown in
India, the Philippines and Eastern Europe, unsure when they will next join
their ships and how they are going to make a living.
Roberto is one of
120 seafarers stranded at a hostel run by global maritime charity Stella Maris
in the Philippines. He’s in his 50s and has worked at sea for 14 years. One
month ago, he was preparing to fly to Cyprus to join a ship. Now under lockdown
and not earning money, he is worried about his family.
I want to go back to my ship because my daughter has to get her
education: Roberto, a seafarer
“I want to go back
to my ship because my daughter has to get her education. I need money very
bad,” he said over video call. “I miss them, but for the sake of my family, I
must wait here.”
Mental health risk
describe being at sea as being in prison,” says Professor Helen Sampson,
director of the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University
in Wales in the United Kingdom. She led a study into mental health at sea,
published in November 2019. Most of the 1,500 participants cited the day they
left a vessel as their happiest day on board.
Maximum a seafarer can spend at sea is 12 months
According to the
Maritime Labour Convention, the maximum time a seafarer can spend at sea is 12
months. Living on a boat for too long can negatively affect mental health. That
is why, per a collective bargaining agreement by the ITF, seafarers can work
nine months plus or minus one month at sea for unforeseen circumstances.
indefinite contract extensions – caused by efforts to contain the pandemic –
are likely to heighten short-term anxiety, incidences of depression, and
compound “the stress and worry that all humans feel as a consequence of the
Back aboard a coal
ship at the port in Colombia, Stanislaw is trying to stay positive. “I tell
myself that I’ll go home [at the] beginning of May,” he says. “Let’s just keep
fingers crossed that it will work out.”