All is Not Smooth Sailing
By Dilshani Palugaswewa
In these unprecedented times the world is experiencing, we have clocked in more than a year-and-a-half of the pandemic and there is still no sign of it slowing down. While we recognise and appreciate all frontline workers for their immense contribution and sacrifice, there are almost 10,000 of them gone underappreciated an unrecognised as key workers in this crisis. These unsung heroes are seafarers who, although have been working as part of essential services, have been subjected to preposterous working conditions with little to no assistance to their grievances, and left helpless and insecure at sea.
Seafarers provide essential service
Despite being responsible for 80 per cent of trade by volume – including medical goods, essential foods, energy, and raw materials and manufactured goods across the globe – there are thousands of them still stranded or waiting to join the vessels. Despite International Maritime Organisation (IMO) urging Member States, to designate seafarers as ‘Key Workers’, case studies indicate a merciless lack of recognition in the treatment of seafarers as key workers.
IMO's Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) has been established for working to help resolve individual cases, alongside other organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). IMO's SCAT team works around the clock – contacting representatives from national governments, NGOs, trade unions or relevant associations, or orienting seafarers towards the right organisation, to find solutions.
To recognise their invaluable role they play despite their plight, the IMO has selected this year’s theme for World Maritime Day (30 September) as, ‘Seafarers: At the Core of Shipping’s Future’, as a gratitude for the seafarers who are facing unprecedented hardship due to the present global crisis. According to the IMO, despite an IMO published Circular Letter 4204/Add.35/Rev.7/24 May 221 – subject: designation Seafarers as Key Workers, only about 65 countries have recognised seafarers as key workers.
As of July 2021, it was estimated that about 250,000 seafarers are unable to repatriate and remain on-board commercial vessels over the expiry of their contracts. A similar number of seafarers have been reported waiting to join ships. As per the information gathered by the IMO, nearly one million seafarers are working on some 60,000 cargo vessels worldwide at any given time.
Crew changes are vital
Vice President of The Nautical Institute (UK) and Goodwill Maritime Ambassador of the International Maritime Organisation (UK), Nish Wijayakulathilaka highlights what’s at stake when due crew changes are not facilitated. He notes that the employment contracts of seafarers varies from four to nine months, but it cannot exceed 11 months in any case as per the Maritime Labour convention 2006. Doing so, not only violates their contracts but also takes a massive toll on the seafarers’ health, safety, and mental wellbeing which directly affects the safe operation of maritime trade.
Medical care for seafarers being denied
Another critical issue he outlined was the lack of urgency and importance given by some ports when it comes to crucial medical care. On numerous occasions, “The permission for shore medical attention has been denied by some countries despite the severity of the medical issue of the seafarer, even though not related to COVID-19,” Wijayakulathilaka says. Exhibit A, he shares of a case reported involving a 45-year-old seafarer wherein a foreign port did not grant entry to the vessel, despite him suffering from a stroke and needing lifesaving treatment.
The medical evacuation was only granted after United Nations agencies involved, stepped in. In another unfortunate instance, after a Master of a vessel had passed away, the body was kept on board for five more months in the cool room unable to repatriate and disembark, owing to the local regulations in several ports it called. Even with necessary action taken by several originations, including local lawyers and pressure through diplomatic channels, all responses were negative with countries refusing to allow disembarkation and repatriation due to enhanced COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Care denied can create trauma
Although the cause of death were indicative of cardiac arrest and not COVID-19 as there were no signs of related symptoms and other crew members were also in the clear for the virus, repatriation of the corpse to its motherland has been unsuccessful in around 11 countries, most of whom , on paper have recognised seafarers as ‘key workers’. This is not the only case of it kind, there have been multiple other reported cases that suffered the same fate of success as this case. “As seafarers, we understand the situation, however, this must also be balanced with the spirit of the respective States' responsibilities towards repatriation of a body under the terms of the MLC 2006 i.e. Regulation 4.1, Guideline B4.1.4 K and Regulation 4.2. “You can imagine the impact of the crew`s mental situation and wellbeing, by having a dead body on board for five months and placing it in a meat room and having vegetables and meat and fish in adjacent cool rooms.
Also, should think about the psychological pressure on the crew and its severity which may affect their wellbeing and could endanger their lives and the vessel’s safety at sea,” Wijayakulathilaka reiterates while also noting the immense trauma it also caused the family of the deceased.
Unpaid and stranded
Other violations to seafarers include, plenty abandoned vessels at several ports, including in Colombo, with crew on-board who’ve exceeded their time of contract by two months to 20 months – unpaid and stranded while their cases have been taken up in court, needed to be assisted and repatriated. Unfortunately, all these scenarios, despite their being an obligation to render assistance to seafarers in distress, including medical assistance, are also enshrined in the IMO Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), Salvage and Facilitation conventions, as well as in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
What can governments do?
The IMO and other organisations are urging governments to designate seafarers as ‘key workers’ and protect them regardless of their nationality. Governments are required to provide seafarers with necessary support such as access to medical treatments, emergency evacuation, exemptions for local and international travels for repatriation, and other such instances. Additionally, governments are urged to prioritise seafarers as like other frontline workers in terms of vaccinations against COVID-19. Sri Lankan authorities have currently taken steps to provide the Pfizer vaccine to seafarers on priority basis.
In view of the ongoing crew change crisis, which is impacting seafarers and other maritime professionals, Member States of the IMO should draw their attention to recognise them as key workers and facilitate as per the IMO Circular letter 4204/Add 35/ Rev 7, dated 20 May 2021. They should be also treated as frontline workers and facilitate repatriation and access to medical emergencies regardless of their nationalities. In addition to that, they should be allowed to get vaccinated on a priority basis even at foreign ports. The safety of life at sea and the wellbeing of the seafarers are to be considered as high importance and not to be jeopardised.
In the event of a maritime accident
It is vital that seafarers are recognised as a special category of workers and given special protection due to the global nature of the shipping industry and the different jurisdictions that they may be brought into contact with – especially in relation to contacts with public authorities – and to ensure that seafarers are treated fairly following a maritime accident and during any investigation and detention by public authorities and that detention is for no longer than necessary.
Also, the Resolution A. 1056(27) adopted on 30 November 2011 which states, “Promotion as widely as possible of the application of the 2006 guidelines on fair treatment of seafarers,” should be implemented. This World Maritime Day, the Nautical Institute – the professional body of the seafarers who boast 7000 members over the 70 countries – take this opportunity to raise their voice for seafarers and the wellbeing and safety of life at sea and request the world to treat them as them as key workers.