20 July 2021
London. UK. Today, the ongoing global welfare crisis affecting seafarers and their families is discussed with Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) by representatives of The Vatican and Stella Maris International further exposing concerns over the fragmentation of seafarers’ rights across the global maritime industry and contradictions in the maritime industry.
On Sea Sunday this July, the Vatican called for the protection of seafarers’ well-being and safety and respect for their human rights. The Vatican’s message invited the maritime industry to learn to act as one as it deals with the pandemic by facilitating crew changes and vaccinations and by strengthening the implementation of international standards to enhance and protect the rights of the “People of the Sea.”
While there have been repeated appeals from international organizations (UN, IMO, ILO), unions, ship owners and faith-based groups to recognize seafarers as essential workers, very few countries have actually facilitated seafarers’ movements or implemented a clear policy for vaccinations. “This has exposed a deep contradiction in the maritime industry. One on hand, it is highly globalized but, on the other, seafarers’ rights and protection are fragmented between several players who are often not accountable to any higher regulation or authority,” says the Vatican in its Sea Sunday message.
Fr. Bruno Ciceri, Stella Maris International Director at the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, spoke to HRAS and highlighted the consequences this is having for seafarers. “COVID-19 encompasses many different issues that seafarers are facing,” he says, citing firstly the seafarers stranded at sea and at risk of fatigue, stress and depression. They are worried about their families. “Let’s think about Indian seafarers where the pandemic has hit hard.”
Just as some seafarers are stranded at sea, others are stranded at home, unable to join their vessel. “The problem is economic, because they have already spent all the money they had set aside when they last signed off. They no longer have any money to support their family.” Even though the situation has improved somewhat from last year, there are still many seafarers unable to get back to work, he says.
Fr. Paulo Prigol, Stella Maris Manila Port Chaplain, spoke to HRAS saying: “Listening to the seafarers is the only way forward; there are no shortcuts and no other option for those working in this sector.” He highlights the challenges associated with constant changes to quarantine protocols both during signing off and signing on, difficulties in processing papers and documents, limited domestic and international flights and to the limited number of available vaccines. “In the Philippines, seafarers belong to category A1, which is the highest; the problem is the lack of available vaccines. Unfortunately, there is also the issue that some countries and companies are not inclined to accept seafarers vaccinated with the Sinovac or Sputnik vaccines.”
While some nations, including the US and Belgium, have started vaccinating seafarers, many have not. The pandemic has caused problems for sick seafarers, unable to be repatriated for treatment, and it is also difficult to disembark the body of deceased seafarers, says Fr. Ciceri. “We have the case of a vessel sailing from South Africa to Singapore when the Italian master died, seemingly of COVID-19. When they reached Jakarta, they wanted to disembark the body, but the government didn’t allow the vessel in. After two months, the shipowner had to bring the ship back to Italy in order to disembark the body.” Also connected with this, there were seafarers that needed medical attention, but again, the government of the countries would not allow the seafarers to disembark to go to hospital.
This is a demonstration, says Fr. Ciceri, of the problems associated with a highly globalised industry. “The pandemic is the first big crisis that the maritime industry has had to face, and there is no one that can take a decision for everybody. We have to rely on each nation to decide what to do with their own border – close it, open it and set requirements for entry. In one country there is one set of regulations, in another country there is another set of regulations, and even though the United Nations has set up all these international organizations that are creating regulations for the maritime industry, in this case, they were not able to get all the different governments to adopt a common policy for seafarers.”
He says the system needs to change. “The maritime industry is a bit like a Russian doll. There are so many people involved: you have the shipowner from one country, the ship is registered in another country, maybe with a flag of convenience, the broker for the crew from a third country and the charterer from a different nation. This set up of the maritime industry, I believe, makes matters more complicated, I think this pandemic is a call for the maritime industry to change its structure so things are more transparent, more linear and more clear.”
The Vatican’s Sea Sunday message called for action beyond the problems caused by the pandemic. “We request all governments and international organizations to determine long-lasting solutions to the scourge of piracy, mindful of the need to address the fundamental problem of the inequality in the distribution of goods between countries and the exploitation of natural resources. Moreover, ship owners should adopt all requisite preventative measures to ensure the safety not only of ships and their cargo, but especially that of seafarers.”
Noting the increase in the number of ship abandonments, the Vatican also demanded the full implementation of the new obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006), which were adopted in 2014 and entered into force in 2017. Ship owners are required to have compulsory insurance to cover abandonment at sea, to pay for expenses including food, drinking water, medical care and repatriation costs.
Finally, the Vatican says that one marine accident is one too many, especially when seafarers are injured or die, go missing at sea or are unjustly criminalized and detained indefinitely. “Sometimes these happens due to the forces of nature, but there are too many instances of negligence by those who prefer to prioritize profit over safety and security. Every tragedy results in families in despair, children without parents and nowhere to lay a flower and say a prayer.”
Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers continue their work for seafarers and fishers. While they generally cannot be in personal contact, they continue to connect with seafarers through social media and provide assistance. This support has included financial support for the families of Filipino seafarers, and in May Stella Maris was awarded a major grant by The Seafarers International Relief Fund to help those in India. An oxygen generator has been purchased for a hospital in Cochin, which will help prevent many lives being lost to the COVID-19 virus. The grant raised by Stella Maris has further enabled 1,100 food parcels to be provided to seafarers and their families affected by COVID-19 in the city. These families are also receiving post COVID-19 care, counselling and therapy.
Fr. Ciceri’s message to seafarers is that they are not alone. “You are always in our mind and in our heart.”
HRAS: David Hammond Esq. CEO firstname.lastname@example.org
Stella Maris: Father Bruno Ciceri, Stella Maris International, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development email@example.com
Stella Maris is the largest ship-visiting network in the world. We improve the lives of seafarers and fishers through our network of local chaplains and seafarer centres, expert information, advocacy, and spiritual support. https://www.stellamaris.org.uk
Photo Credit: Stella Maris International.