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June 29, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

Last Thursday was June 25, celebrated annually as the “Day of the Seafarer” by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to honor the men and women who serve on ships at sea.

Time for my annual rant.

As I write these words, some 200,000 seafarers are virtual prisoners on their ships, unable to go ashore or return home to their families.

It’s a disgrace.

And one that can easily be put to right, if the governments of the world just set their minds to it.

(As you may know, I spent some of my formative years at sea, so this is a subject in which I take a strong personal interest.)

Let me start with a few facts and figures.

On any given day, there are about 1.2 million seafarers at work on 60,000 ships at sea, which are responsible for transporting an estimated 80 percent of world trade. They often work 10-12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Their work contracts are typically 3-6 months, and they are limited by international labor conventions to no more than 11 months. About 100,000 seafarers are subject to crew change per month.

The turnovers normally occur during a port call, where existing crewmembers at the end of their contract period leave the ship and new ones report aboard to take their place. The oncoming reliefs and off going crew are transported – usually on commercial airlines—to and from their homes in the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Ukraine and other countries.

There’s the rub.

Commercial airline cancellations and border closures have made it virtually impossible for seafarers to leave their ships and be repatriated to their home countries. Even if they could get permission from the local authorities to disembark, the oncoming seafarers may not be able to get there to relieve them.

So nearly a quarter of a million seafarers are currently trapped on ships at sea. Some have been on board for 15 months or longer with little prospect of repatriation. (And this doesn’t include the 70,000 or so workers stuck on cruise ships in long-term layup unable to go ashore – some of them without pay.)

As you might imagine, an exhausted, fatigued and mentally stressed seafarer has a much higher risk of illness or accident in an inherently dangerous working environment.

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has issued a statement that seafarers should consider work stoppages if required to work beyond their contracts. The ITF president said, “Enough is enough. We have to draw a line in the sand, and today is the day that we make it crystal clear to governments that seafarers are going to start enforcing their right to stop work and to return home. No more contract extensions.”

Remember, most of these seafarers have been stuck on ships for months and have had little exposure to anyone other than their shipmates (although to be fair, there’s always a possibility the coronavirus could have been brought aboard the ship during the last port call from pilots, cargo handlers, shipping agents and shoreside service technicians visiting the ship, so sensible precautions are appropriate).

Solving this conundrum is not rocket science. It’s simply a matter of setting up appropriate quarantine and testing procedures for seafarers disembarking the ship at the port, with additional airport screening, distancing and isolation at the country of origin.

The wretched truth is that – as usual – seafarers are “out of sight, out of mind.”

Frank Coles, CEO of Wallem Group, one of the world’s largest ship management companies with some 7,000 seafarers on its rolls, is outraged by the roadblocks to crew transfers. In an interview, he said: “If you truly want world commerce to go on, you need to take care of the workers. If the workers stop, world commerce will stop. Take care of the people and commerce will take care of itself.”

(I’ve known Frank a good many years, and he’s never held back from expressing strong opinions in the maritime media.)

The IMO has urged member states to declare seafarers “essential workers” and expedite repatriation procedures.  And the United Kingdom joined with the IMO last Thursday to call for an international “discussion” on the subject.

In a LinkedIn post Friday morning, Frank wrote: “Let’s hope this is not another day of talking to ourselves.”


A totally unrelated postscript …

Today I learned that Dame Vera Lynn died at the age of 104.Here’s a link to her inimitable wartime recording of “White Cliffs of Dover.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovfQjR3iU-A. If you find this unmoving you should re-inspect your soul.

Photo credit: ITF