Trapped for months due to COVID, cargo ship workers warn of ‘anarchy at sea’

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Even with countries now slowly opening their borders, reduced flight routes and problems in obtaining permits along with difficulty in finding new crews, have led to ship workers being stuck in the sea for an extended period of time, owing to the pandemic. We explore the harrowing tales of fear and frustration of the seafarers, who form the lifeline of the global maritime and logistics industry and how they are now contemplating anarchy in a bid to have their cries heard.

With countries closing their borders due to the pandemic, thousands of workers who are responsible for transporting 90% of the world’s goods have been compelled to continue to work or remain on board beyond their contracts-which usually run for four to six months.

Cargo ship workers who confess contemplating self-harm and having suicidal thoughts, fear that a bomb for potential accidents is ticking , in a report published by the International Transport Workers Federation(ITF).

The Federation is a group of trade unions whose members represent around 30% of the global seafaring workforce.

Violation of MLC

Even when the borders have been reopened, shipping firms have been struggling to arrange for a new crew, which only means that everyone had to stay on board.

This has also raised concerns about breaching of the International Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), according to the ITF.

According to the agreement, seafarers cannot be made to work without shore leave for longer than eleven months.

“Governments not doing nearly enough”

In the month of June, more than 12 countries have recognised seafarers as “essential workers”; however, in a statement on July 16, the ITF said that many governments were still not doing “nearly enough”.

However, the ITF and the Mission to Seafarers, a Christian charity- who are directly associated with seafrers have produced reports on their experiences, while maintaining the anonymity of the workers.

The seafarers are responsible for the availability of many day-to-day essential times like delivery goods, medical supplies for hospitals, oil etc that are being transported through ships.

The introduction to the Seafarers’ Happiness Index for Q1 2020 produced by Mission to Seafarers, have detailed experiences of how crews, who are reading of empty supermarket shelves and panic buying, are proud that they are doing everything they can to help keep society supplied with essential goods.

However, the pandemic has resulted in uncountable human toll, now recognized by the ITF as a humanitarian crisis.

Looming thoughts of death and decay

There are fears of mental health struggles, of workers longing to be back home with family and a haunting fear of death that worries these workers.

As per a survey by the ITF, 867 seafarers were surveyed in May of which 70% of them have been forced to extend their contracts.

There have also been concerns about lack of access to proper medical care. Fellow workers have had to put on their doctor gloves to treat their friends and colleagues despite not being physicians- such is the desperation. It has also been said that workers have been airlifted in serious cases to safety, and that captains have basic medical training.

Some sea workers have also shared how they have not been able to see their family members who have died since onshore.

An Indonesian seafarer narrated his experience of how words elude him in describing the hardships that they are facing.

One seafarer from Egypt shared how he has been contemplating suicide because of the stress of the long contact, sharing that he has lost the meaning of life

On the edge of frustration

According to Mission to Seafarers’ Q2 Happiness survey, reduced and limited crews, stringent social distancing norms and strong hygiene measures have taken a toll in the day-to-day life on board. The report states that “there is a pressure to keep hygiene standards at almost hospital levels”. However, even after such stringent rules in place, crews have reported not always having the adequate or appropriate PPE kits or practicing social distancing.

This has also started impacting the bonds amongst the  crew members, due to pent-up frustration.

The dire conditions of the crew can also be understood by the fact that according to the ITF report, a south African sailor narrated how the crew had run out of shampoo, as a result of which they decided to shave their heads.

Augury of a looming disaster

The sailors and seafarers have narrated how they fear an anarchy in the sea, which may lead to a bigger disaster of cargo not being delivered at the ports.

Although many countries have reopened their borders, there however seems to be no easy solution for sailors to get home and getting new workers on board, as barriers still lie ahead.

Due to reduced commercial flight routes, many companies have taken to chartering their own planes to move crews. There are also hindrances in obtaining secure transit visas and permits.

There are also people struggling who are not aboard the ship yet. As per an estimate, 300,000 seafarers who were expected to be working at sea in this time, are presently unemployed and currently onshore.

“Will support strike”

The ITF said that it will now support strike action in ships, should the crews decide to take it. However, despite governments speeding up the process, many haven’t done what they had promised while some have even taken steps backward.

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