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All Talk, No Action.

October 6, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

Three months ago, on the occasion of the international “Day of the Seafarer,” I wrote in these pages that some 200,000 seafarers were virtual prisoners on their ships due to Covid travel restrictions that made it difficult for crew members to return to their homes and families.

I wish I could report that progress has been made toward a solution. But in fact, it’s worse – a whole lot worse.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) announced last week that the number of crew members awaiting repatriation is now up to 400,000. Many of them have been on their ships as long as 17 months, well beyond their 3-6 month work contracts and in violation of International labor conventions that mandate 11 months as the maximum time allowable for sea tours on commercial ships.

You have to double this number to get the full impact, because in addition to the 400,000 trapped on their ships there are 400,000 more replacement workers stuck ashore without work and without pay because they cannot get to their ships.

There are some 1.2 million seafarers serving on 60,000 ships on any given day. They typically work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week at sea. And when their ships enter port to load or unload cargo, they are not allowed to go ashore.

Various international bodies, including the ICS, International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF), have issued impassioned pleas for governments to take action.

A ship’s captain, addressing a UN conference last week, said, “Not knowing when or if we will be returning home brings a severe mental toll on my crew and myself. Think how you would feel if you had to work every day for 12 hours with no weekends without seeing your loved ones.”

The sad truth is that, despite all this public head-nodding, hand-wringing and speechifying, we are no closer to a workable solution.

Doing the arithmetic, the number of seafarers overdue for repatriation may well exceed 1 million in coming months if nothing is done.

To be fair, the problem is fiendishly complicated. Crew changes are – at the best of times – a carefully choreographed dance, involving manning agencies, commercial airlines, port authorities, airports, customs and public health officialdom. It’s made more difficult by the fact that airlines flights are severely curtailed and draconian customs and immigration limits have been adopted by national governments. In addition, commercial pressures in the modern era have made ships’ port visits shorter and shorter. Delays for crew transfers can be expensive to the shipowner, charterer, shipper and their insurers.

A dose of common sense would be helpful here. Surely this problem can be resolved with a combination of testing and quarantining for offgoing and oncoming crew and hiring charter aircraft to transport them if commercial flights are unavailable.

Frank Coles, CEO of Wallem Group, one of the world’s largest ship management companies, has called for a “Berlin Airlift” to return the trapped seafarers to their homes. “This is a global abuse of human rights on a scale that would stagger most people if they only were aware of it,” he said.  “I consider it mental torture at the hands of the world’s governments.”

He added: “Unless we can get governments to wake up to the scale of the relief effort, we won’t see an end to this crisis for a year – and it will likely not stop until a huge accident or disaster occurs.”

This is not an overstatement.

Working on a ship at sea is inherently stressful and dangerous. It’s made even more dangerous when the seafarers are unhappy, depressed, desperately lonely and under severe mental duress.

Consider this news story …

A bulk carrier ran aground off the coast of Mauritius in August. The ship broke apart, spilling a large quantity of fuel oil onto the environmentally sensitive reef. The initial investigation revealed that the master intentionally drove the ship close to the island’s coast so his desperate crew could access shoreside cellular networks to call home and talk with their loved ones. The master is being held for trial and could face the rest of his life in prison.

Or this …

On September 29, on a container ship enroute from China to Long Beach, a Filipino crew member stabbed another seafarer with a knife 17 times. The victim died. The killer was taken ashore and charged with murder in California.

And this …

The Seafarers Hospital Society reported in July that suicides are the number one source of deaths on ships.

Are these stories coincidental, or are they the tip of a very dangerous iceberg?

Photo credit: Seatrade Maritime News