14 May 2020
“I’m facing financial crisis. I don’t understand how will pay mortgages, household expenses and children education fees without income. I am away from family for almost 10 weeks without employment. Seafarer to be treated as essential worker and give priority for employment.”
London. UK. Since April, Human Rights at Sea has been put on notice of cases of seafarers stranded on board vessels, stuck in hotels, and in some cases without salaries been paid without having recourse to employer or union support.
Today, the charity issues an insight from one seafarer who approached the organisation for urgent assistance, and who remains stranded in a foreign State unable to get home while now relying on welfare handouts.
The issue of stranded seafarers continues globally and following the issuance on 5 May of a comprehensive 12-point step ‘roadmap’ developed by a supply chain coalition led by industry and unions in cooperation with UN agencies, according to the International Chamber of Shipping 150,000 crew will now require change over. This, however, is not happening on the scale needed to reflect legal requirements and maintain the previously well-established crew change system.
As the effect of COVID-19 lockdown measures varies internationally from State-to-State, for seafarers sailing across the globe, it stands to reason that they will experience and be subject to the vagaries of a current decentralised and disjointed policy approach to managing the effects of the virus.
It is perhaps too early, or too unrealistic, to expect any immediate global response to the 7 May 20 IMO endorsed 12-point plan to implement a unified system for crew changes that is immune from the whims of individual State decision-making. It is clear, however, that in order to limit the burden on seafarers and their families, harmonised processes and procedures need to be uniformly and urgently adopted by Governments throughout the world.
It has now been widely reported that seafarers are suffering a disproportionate level of iniquity as a result of the lockdown measures implemented by States. Whether they are unable to leave a vessel and return home, or, unable to join a vessel and left in a hotel room (sometimes at their own expense), depression, homesickness and the mental anguish brought on by the inherent uncertainty of the times is a very real and present welfare issue.
The UK Government has helpfully categorised seafarers as ‘critical workers’. Because their work is so vital, the Government wishes to ensure that seafarers are able to carry out their jobs with as few constraints as possible, which means, among others, being able to use necessary transport links. But not all States have adopted the same policy.
Travel restrictions imposed by Governments trying to contain the pandemic’s spread are clearly inhibiting crew changes, while the vital role shipping plays in ensuring that supply chains remain unaffected during these times has never been more apparent.
Nonetheless, the men and women on board these ships enabling the uninterrupted flow of essential goods are seemingly forgotten with countless States apparently not appreciating the practicalities associated with manning these vessels. Consequently, some have even gone so far as to state that they are ‘prisoners at sea’.
Until recently, India did not allow international crew changes fearing that seafarers would inadvertently bring the virus into the country. However, at the time of writing, there are signs that measures have been put in place to mitigate this with respect to their own nationals.
As of 7 May 2020, India has started repatriating some of the estimated 200,000 citizens it has dotted across the world waiting to come home. For now, those repatriation flights are focused on the main hubs such as Singapore, the UK and US.
The case of an Indian seafarer and the implications of COVID-19 lockdown measures
Human Rights at Sea recently assisted an Indian seafarer in Tunisia. He agreed to have his story told on the basis of anonymity due to a common-held fear by the majority of seafarers that they will be blacklisted if they speak out.
Due to join his vessel in mid-March, the seafarer arrived in Tunisia in good time to transit to the port and stay in a nearby hotel and await instructions regarding the crew change. Although the vessel was in port on the expected date, it quickly transpired that the Tunisian authorities were not allowing crew changes to take place.
The seafarer’s agreement with his employer was such that he would not be paid until he joined the vessel and that any expenses accrued up to that point, would be borne by him. This included costs such as flights, accommodation, food and travel.
A few days later the employer informed the seafarer that no crew change would take place before the end of April at the earliest. He was advised to fly home at his own expense. Tunisia had however cancelled all commercial flights and the seafarer was now stranded at the hotel and bearing all costs himself.
He contacted the Indian Embassy in Tunisia to advise them of his circumstances, but no repatriation flights were running. With costs building up the seafarer got in touch with Human Rights at Sea who in turn referred his case to the International Seafarer’s Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).
ISWAN were able to make an emergency payment to help cover the cost of food and accommodation for the month of March. He was also able to agree with his employer that all food and accommodation costs from April onwards would be covered by them. But he was still not receiving his salary.
The seafarer has family at home who are dependent on him and his earnings. His wife, two children and his parents are thankfully all at home in India which has provided some peace of mind during these uncertain times. But he has debts to service and these are contingent upon him receiving a salary which he was expecting to start earning in mid-March.
He has been fortunate enough to be accommodated in a good quality hotel. There have been no supply chain issues experienced by the hotel and currently there are only ten guests in total staying there. He is of course confined to the hotel grounds, but these seem extensive enough for him to not feel too claustrophobic.
The seafarer is presently due to join his vessel on the 22 May 2020. The vessel is currently off-hire and has been at anchorage since 16 March only coming into port once a month for provisions, fresh food and water.
The picture has been a confused one throughout. Conflicting information has been received from his employer and the local agent. Apparently, crew changes have been permitted by the Tunisian authorities for some time, but the logistics of undertaking a crew change have dissuaded seafarers from signing-off.
A period of 14 days quarantine must be carried out before repatriation is possible. Then, upon successful repatriation, a further 14 days quarantine is required. It can therefore take a minimum of 28 days from sign-off to getting home for some seafarers depending on the lockdown measures implemented by certain countries. But this assumes that repatriation flights are in place for the off-signers.
With commercial flights still cancelled it is very much down to each country whether or not they put on flights for their citizens.
Repatriation flights are an unknown quantity. India recently commenced repatriating some of its citizens. Repatriation flights have only been in operation since the 7 May 2020. The flights are mainly focused on the main hubs at present i.e. Singapore, UK, USA. At the time of writing, with only 20 Indian nationals in Tunisia, the seafarer believes that it is unlikely that repatriation flights from Tunisia will be prioritised. An update to the schedule of repatriation flights is due on 15 May 2020 (today).
Although the seafarer is scheduled to join his vessel later this month, he remains on the list of Indian nationals due to be repatriated. He is, however, undecided as to which option suits him best, repatriation or joining the vessel. He has reasoned that he will take whichever option comes first. Both options provide more certainty than his current situation allows, however, both options carry with them certain disadvantages and advantages.
If repatriated, the seafarer will be able to return home and be with his family. He will also be able to look for work. But he will have to go into quarantine on arrival and finding work in the current economic climate may not be as easy as he hopes.
On the other hand, joining the vessel will mean that his salary will start to be paid. But there is a big question mark over what the vessel will be doing for the next few months. Also, the seafarer originally agreed a contract for 3 months +/- 15 days. Because of the lockdown measures he has now been in Tunisia for well over two months and if he joins the vessel, he could then be away from home for up to seven months in total.
The seafarer in question appreciates that his circumstances, as bad as they are, are not as dire as others may be experiencing.
Nonetheless, his situation is symptomatic of a wider problem within the industry and is a problem that shows little sign of being collectively solved any time soon.