Seafarers face a tough challenge amid COVID-19

A roadmap to safely repatriate seafarers whose time onboard has long exceeded their contract duration is lacking in several countries

August 06, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
seafarers amid COVID19
(Photo: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The worsening morale and mental health of hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded aboard ships across the globe due to COVID-19- related lockdowns has been described as a “ticking time bomb.” This might lead to dangerous consequences if not immediately addressed. 

As per a report published by The Mission to Seafarers on July 29, uncertainty over when they can reunite with their families and the perpetual fear of getting infected has begun to exert a heavy toll on seafarers. Many fear that if infected, they will be unable to avail timely medical care due to restrictions on getting back on land. At the same time, lack of adequate supplies of PPEs and safety training, as well as increased workload due to regular sanitization of ships and personal gear, have left seafarers distressed.

Increasing cases of sickness, alcohol consumption and tensions between crew members have been registered. These are dangerous manifestations of the stress being endured by seafarers who have been stuck at sea for five months following the lockdown. 

The Mission to Seafarers is a Christian charity to aid merchant crews, founded in 1856. It conducts quarterly surveys, the results of which are published in a report titled ‘Seafarers Happiness Index’. The report for the 2nd quarter of 2020 showed that conditions for seafarers have significantly deteriorated since the end of the first quarter of the year, by when COVID-19 had reached pandemic proportions.

“While (survey for) Q1 showed us how seafarers suffered as Covid-19 struck home and provided insight into the support that was needed, the Q2 report highlights the cost of inaction and the need for immediate solutions. It is paramount that we see progress with crew changeovers, onboard PPE and improved communication between shore and sea, to defuse this ticking time-bomb,” said the Mission’s secretary general, Andrew Wright. 

The typical duration of a seafarer’s contract is four to six months, but many opt for a few months’ extension to comply with their home-country’s regulatory requirements to avoid double taxation. The maximum duration a seafarer can remain on board without leave is “less than 12 months”, according to the ILO 2006 Maritime Labor Convention’s Regulation 2.5. 

“When at sea, they often work 10-12 hours shifts, seven days a week – performing tasks that require constant professional attention. Seafarers spending extended periods onboard are more at risk of adverse health effects, including physical and mental health issues,” the International Maritime Organization (IMO) explains.  

According to the ILO, many of the seafarers have now already been on ships for over 15 months. “Thousands of seafarers stranded on board ships have already expressed their exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety and mental stress. And a physically and mentally fatigued seafarer has a much higher risk of being involved in a marine casualty,” IMO has stated. It estimates that as of early July, at least 200,000 seafarers were in need of “immediate repatriation”.

Those seeking repatriation must also be replaced with fresh crews in order to ensure the global supply of commodities, including essential supplies like medicines, medical equipment and food. Almost 80% of global supplies are shipped. 

Appeals unheeded by most governments

The IMO has been campaigning for seafarers to be designated as “key workers” in order to facilitate the changeover of shipping crews while national borders remain shut and lockdown restrictions affect movement. In June, U.N secretary general António Guterres took up this cause, urging all countries to recognize seafarers as “key workers” who will be exempted from certain restrictions.   

“United Nations agencies, including the International Labour Organization and the International Maritime Organization, have worked with the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation to develop protocols for crew changeovers, taking full account of public health concerns. The Secretary-General calls on all governments to urgently implement these protocols, allowing stranded seafarers to repatriate and others to join ships,” Guterres’ spokesperson said in a statement on June 12.

However, most governments are yet to pay heed to this recommendation. Many shipping companies have also sought to delay changeovers to avoid additional costs involved in following the set protocols amid COVID-19, and have resorted to repeated extensions of the contract duration.

As a result, seafarers have been forced to remain at sea for far longer than what they had originally signed up for. The resulting mental stress has affected social life onboard. Crew members are also required to maintain a distance of two to three meters between them.   

“We have separate tables during meals, and staggered times, which means it is very hard to even have conversations,” one respondent to the Mission’s survey said. “Others commented that while guidance on their vessel encourages occasional special events, such as barbecues, the instruction to socially distance turns these occasions into a depressing farce,” the report adds.

Such factors are producing strong feelings of loneliness, leading to many seafarers resorting to excessive alcohol consumption. “Secret Cabin drinking” is on the rise, according to the report. On high seas, this poses a major risk to the health of the sailor and also to the safety of the vessel.

The fear of not being able to get help in case of any medical requirement is also palpable. “I have needed the dentist for the past three ports but am not allowed to get ashore. How can this be fair?,” questioned one respondent. 

According to the Mission, the “average respondent” to its survey “would be a male Indian sailing as deck crew on a tanker, and would be aged 25-35.”

The Forward Seamen’s Union of India (FSUI), a prominent left-wing trade union representing sailors since 1954, confirms that lack of medical access is a widespread concern among Indian seafarers, and has resulted in no small part due to the government’s laxness.   

Union accuses Indian government of being insensitive

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, FSUI’s general secretary, Manoj Yadav, gave the example of the “ongoing case of Mohammed Asif” who was stranded onboard M.V Haijili Cargo. Asif met with an accident on May 28, which resulted in a fractured backbone and broken collarbone, among other injuries. While the vessel sailed on to its destination China, it was only on June 25, almost a month after the injury, that Asif was taken to a hospital there. 

The union sent a request to the employer to have him signed off and repatriated. The employer took the request forward to the Indian embassy in China. However, the Indian government, heavily invested at the time in the border dispute with China, failed to cater to the wounded sailor.

Asif was forced to go onboard again as the vessel sailed on to Japan. Once it reached the Beihai port, the FSUI intervened through its contacts in the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) to which it is affiliated. “The ITWF requested the coastguards also, but nothing happened due to lack of initiative from the Indian government,” Asif complained.

The ship then sailed back to China and is currently anchored in Hong Kong. After continued appeals from the employer and the union, the Director General (DG) of Shipping finally took the initiative to clear Asif’s journey back home for August 7. The employer has booked his flight ticket.

“While the government has claimed credit for bringing tens of thousands back to India, Yadav fails to see what the government’s credit-worthy contribution is. He maintains that the DG Shipping coordinated these efforts, while the employers booked the charter flights for their crew and bore the expenses, with no support from the government. There have, however, been cases where the seafarers had to themselves bear the costs as employers either charged them for the tickets or deducted the expense from their salaries.”

Having endured all this, when one finally sets foot on Indian land, it is only the end of the first leg of a long and arduous journey for seafarers.

“The accommodation problem of seafarers in metro cities like Mumbai is a big threat. While coming to join a ship, or after signing off from it, they have to stay in the very limited space at Seafarers Hostel, which is not enough to practice distancing,” Yadav said.

There have been several cases of seafarers getting infected at such accommodations. “Seafarers don’t have any medical insurance once they sign off the ship,” he further added. 

In recognition of the economic hardships and health risks faced by seafarers due to the pandemic, the FSUI has demanded that the government provide them additional insurance to the tune of roughly USD 66,730. This demand has been raised by seafarers through several protests across the country’s port cities in June and July, but to no avail.

While the government’s record in safely bringing back stranded seafarers has been poor, its record on ensuring their safe replacements by other seafarers is even worse, Yadav claims. 

Risk of massive job losses

Repatriating those whose time at sea has long exceeded their original contract’s duration is only the first half of the process of crew changeovers. The second is their replacement with other seafarers who have been on land for the last months after having completed their previous contracts. 

Most seafarers have no earnings while on ground and rely on savings from their time spent at sea. The duration on land is essentially a leave period to allow rest and recuperation required to prepare for the challenging rigor of the next stint at sea, replacing the sailors who land for their leave period.  

“The government has no roadmap on how to safely facilitate these replacements, which have virtually come to a standstill,” says Yadav. As a result, those seafarers who have been on land during the lockdown now find themselves unemployed with no source of income.

This unemployment is not expected to be a temporary phase because of one missed cycle of crew rotation, Yadav claims. Ships will have to continue to sail to ensure essential supplies to the global market despite the pandemic. If the Indian government cannot facilitate crew rotation, the international job market that Indian seafarers have carved for themselves will be lost to those from other countries whose governments have been more proactive.

“Singapore’s government, for example has taken good measures to ensure not only the safe return of its sailors who have completed their contracts, but also their replacement in order to retain their job market,” Yadav said.

As of 2018, an estimated 208,799 Indian seafarers were employed onboard Indian and foreign vessels. This is a significant 12.5% of the total number of seafarers in the world, estimated by the International Chamber of Shipping to be 1,647,500. 774,000 of them are officers, to whose ranks India is the third largest contributor in the world.

Yadav warns that much of this massive international market captured by Indian seafarers over the years will be lost if the government does not work with the unions to develop an actionable roadmap to facilitate replacements alongside the process of repatriation.