Welcome to our blog, where we comment on a wide variety of topics. Some of them relate to our line of work. Others are more far ranging.
By Jim Rhodes
Friday, June 25, was the 10th annual “Day of the Seafarer.” As usual, there were speeches and press releases from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other bodies praising the contributions made by the more than a million men and women serving on commercial ships around the world. This year’s theme was “Seafarers: at the Core of Shipping’s Future.”
Blah. Blah. Blah.
What’s missing in these flights of oratory is any workable proposal for solving the crew change deadlock. Some 200,000 seafarers are still virtually imprisoned on their ships by Covid travel restrictions, with no shore leave, inadequate medical care, no access to vaccinations and little hope of returning to their homes anytime soon. In many cases, their internet connections are limited to brief periods when the ships are close enough to shore to get a signal. Their work contracts expired months ago. And the oncoming crew who would normally relieve them are similarly trapped ashore, unable to get to ports where they could board their ships. That means they are out of work with no way to get to their ships and no pay to support their families.
It gets worse.
A spokeswoman from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) reported on June 22 that there has been a sharp upsurge of ship abandonment cases, in which unscrupulous shipping companies throw themselves into bankruptcy and then disappear, leaving their ships stranded without support at anchor in harbors around the world. The crews have no pay, no food or water, no medical supplies and no fuel to run the generators, leaving them without electricity (which means they can’t even charge their mobile phones to call home). The seafarers are not allowed by local authorities to leave the ships. Local charitable organizations provide what help they can, delivering food and supplies. Over 50 ships have been reported as abandoned this year worldwide according to the ICS report. One of them, the Qatari-owned bulk ship Ula, was stuck in Kuwait for more than a year with 19 seafarers (pictured above) on board. They were finally allowed to return to their homes after staging a hunger strike to call attention to their plight.
Does anyone care?
The mainstream media, now that the Suez Canal has been unblocked, have returned to their normal posture of ignoring ships and seafarers who are out-of-sight and out-of-mind. (As a result, you may not be aware that the Ever Given, its crew and its cargo of thousands of shipping containers still remain at anchor in a lake inside the canal, detained by the Egyptian government pending settlement of hundreds of millions of dollars of claims.)
How bad is it? Consider this.
Even dead seafarers cannot be sent home to their loved ones.
In April, the Italian captain of the containership Ital Liberia died, reportedly from Covid-19, in the Indian Ocean. No seaport in Asia would permit the captain’s body to be unloaded and shipped back to his family in Italy. The body stayed on the ship, presumably stored in a freezer, for about two months. Finally, on June 8, the shipping company declared “Force Majeure” (a legal concept under which a contract can be nullified temporarily due to an “act of God”), and sent the ship sailing on the long voyage at a cost of millions of dollars to Italy to deliver the captain’s body to his family for burial.
It’s not the only incident.
The Romanian captain of the MV Vantage Wave died at sea from cardiac arrest while sailing from India to China on April 19. Despite the non-Covid cause of death, repeated requests for repatriation of the body were denied by China, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. The ship with the captain’s body, at last report, was riding at anchor outside a Chinese port, in hopes of getting permission for repatriation of his remains.
According to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), there have been at least 10 other instances in which the families of seafarers who died at sea of non-Covid causes were told their loved ones’ bodies would have to be incinerated. The Romanian captain’s family reportedly has agreed to have his body cremated with his ashes shipped to them, even though it violates their religious practices.
Frank Coles, whom I have known for a good many years, was until recently the chairman of one of the world’s largest ship management companies. He is a ferocious advocate for seafarers’ rights. In a June 22 blog post on the admirable G-Captain website, he wrote: “We have sports matches go on with people attending, we have people flying on vacation, but seafarers who deliver 80% of everything you use … who cares?”