On the 25 June 2020, Human Rights at Sea will be celebrating the Day of the Seafarer, an IMO-led initiative which each year raises awareness on the vital role seafarers play in enabling global trade and the flow of essential goods. This year’s campaign focuses on the ‘key worker status’ of seafarers, emphasising that seafarers are essential to shipping and therefore, vital to the world.
Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the unprecedented effects the virus has had on our daily lives, the importance of seafarers and the job they perform has perhaps never been more pronounced. Yet, for those who have ensured the regular supply of foods, medicines and medical supplies to our coronavirus-stricken countries, work patterns and family life have never been more uncertain.
By late March, HRAS was already reporting on the disadvantageous effects of Covid-19 measures on seafarers’ lives and the need for better support, transparency and information as the situation developed. Soon after this, concerns regarding the provision of adequate PPE were highlighted to the Charity. Interactions with shore-based crew and visitors to the vessels became an increasing risk to the health and wellbeing of those on board. It was felt among many crews that employers were not doing enough to protect them.
Then came the reality of the effects of lockdown measures of individual States on seafarers. It soon transpired that crew changes were becoming impossible to carry out as commercial flights were being cancelled and quarantine rules were impacting on the decisions of off-signers to leave vessels. Couple with this an economic downturn, slump in the price of oil and an increasing number of vessels off-hire, and the knock-on effect with respect to seafarers’ wages and the impact on dependent family members became apparent. This led some to report that in some cases seafarers were effectively becoming prisoners at sea.
Seafarers who have the courage to speak out against their employers’ action-plans with respect to Covid-19, their well-being concerns and the measures in place to protect them against the virus, have allegedly received threats.
A general failure to ‘tell it how it is’ has led to widespread panic among seafarers in some parts of the world. Whether this was down to deliberate fact suppression on the part of the authorities or just careless underreporting we do not know. What we do know is that many seafarers have suffered mental health issues as a result of the uncertainty surrounding their work, pay and ability to return home to their families. Perversely, in some quarters, seafarers have returned home only to suffer social exclusion at the hands of an ill-informed public.
And it must be remembered that whilst the effects of Covid-19 measures are both widespread and devastating, the industry is not suddenly without its problems elsewhere – cases of seafarer abandonment and missing personscontinue to be reported. The virus and all that it has left in its wake has simply served to drown out the voices of these men and women even further.
A systemic failure across the international shipping industry to uniformly recognise these key workers as such has resulted in a fragmented system of individual nations implementing wildly convoluted and confusing processes and procedures for seafarers at a time when they need certainty, stability and protection.
Going forwards, the need for assurance of key worker status and coordinated policies and processes in relation to the management of crew changes and the transportation of seafarers to their vessels from their homes and vice-versa, must be placed at the forefront of governments’ minds.
The Day of the Seafarer is an opportunity for all of us to thank the seafarers whose efforts have, without doubt, saved lives. The continuation of shipping has meant the continuous provision of life-saving equipment and medicines and it has enabled trade to continue, propping up financially stricken economies. We need to thank seafarers, not with empty words, but with immediate action.