The Plight of 300,000 Seafarers Stuck at Sea

The pandemic had an enormous impact on markets, health, and geopolitics. But while a certain normalcy has returned in commerce and day-to-day life hundreds of thousands of seafarers are still stuck at sea.

The countries that still don’t allow crew changes at ports are part of the problem. The situation for up to 300,000 seafarers has been described as unbearable. They are hoping for a solution but there doesn’t seem to be one. This is despite growing news media coverage; the involvement of lawyers;  and large multinationals like Carrefour, Unilever, and P&G urging the United Nations to solve the problem

The Current Situation

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cruise and cargo industry were hit hard by lockdown operations at the beginning of March.

Some countries are still not allowing crew changes in port. Crewmembers need to leave the ship because their contracts expired and they need the agreed-upon time off. But they are being forced to remain on ships without contracts and with no resolution in sight.

The workers feel as if they are being held hostage and they just want to go home.

In one case, a steward on an MSC cruise ship hasn’t been paid since last March. The steward reported that some people have been away from their families since that time. They cannot return home or send their family members any money. In some cases, crew members have missed funerals for loved ones back home.

Ashchaye Mohitram said that being stuck on his ship is the worst thing that has ever happened to him. This isn’t just about the confinement. Crews don’t always have enough food to eat. At times some only had bread and butter to eat. “I’m just praying to get back on land soon with my family, eating homemade meals,” Mohitram said.

International Maritime Law

pic credit – from the interwebs

The Maritime Labour Convention set the working conditions that countries must follow where the seafarers are concerned. But since the spread of COVID-19, these regulations have been regularly violated. Approximately 20% of the world’s sailors are currently stranded on their ships and their employers seem to have no solutions.

Half of the more than 40 seafarers that Bloomberg spoke to hadn’t been paid in more than two months, which is defined as “forced labor” by the International Labour Organization. Among those who are being paid, overtime pay is inconsistent.

In a catch-22 situation, because ships have been blamed for COVID-19 outbreaks, seafarers are not allowed to leave them. This has been disastrous for sailors who have not been able to get proper medical and dental care. For example, some had had to resort to being stitched up by fellow crewmates. In perhaps the most ghoulish story, a captain had a heart attack and died. The crew didn’t have any choice but to place his body in a freezer because they were unable to dock at a port for two weeks.

The head of the transport and maritime sectoral policies at the International Labour Organization was very concerned about the fact that seafarers didn’t have new contracts and are not being paid their overtime wages. He said that employers are violating the Maritime Labour Convention and that this has to be avoided at all costs even if there is a pandemic going on.

A Growing Crisis

Cargo operations in the Port of Freeport Bahamas, 2017, by Martin Leduc

According to the United Nations, this situation is a “growing humanitarian and safety crisis.” Unfortunately, no one has offered a solution so far. Approximately 300,000 sailors remain on their ships without contracts. They continue to suffer from fatigue and isolation.

According to a survey by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, seafarers are suffering from exhaustion and stress and that is making it hard for them to focus on their jobs. At sea, even small mistakes can have disastrous consequences.  Some seafarers likened their situations to slavery or prison.

Maritime attorney Michael Winkleman claims that employers are keeping their crewmembers on their ships for two reasons. The first is that there are still major challenges getting people home via commercial airlines and it’s prohibitively expensive to use private flights. The other reason is, “They’re hopeful that they’re going to resume sailing, so they would rather keep crew members on board.”

Winkleman has been busy filing lawsuits on behalf of seafarers. Meanwhile, some crew members have joined hunger strikes and there have been several suicides.

The Journey Ends but the Misery Continues

Maiara Leones used to work for Holland America. When she embarked on her ship on January 13, 2020, she had no idea that she would still be on the ship in May. The experience made her anxious, and she really wanted to return home. That was when she had her first panic attack. Along with panic attacks, Leones began to have thoughts of suicide, and she has been feeling depressed even though she isn’t on the ship anymore.

Guy Platten of the International Chamber of Shipping stated that governments need to find a solution for desperate situations like this in the near future. If they don’t, global trade is going to suffer along with the seafarers.

That is exactly what Alliance Risk consultant Andrew Kinsey said needs to happen. He suggested that ships must dock at ports where the people in charge are currently refusing to allow crewmembers to return home. He also thinks that the owners of these ships should say that their vessels aren’t fit to make any deliveries because the crews are being overworked.

These two things would disrupt trade. If trade is allowed to move as it has been, Kinsey believes that nothing will change for the seafarers.

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