Friday, June 25, 2021

Day of the Seafarer Sparks Vitriolic Criticism at Government Inaction

Global Authorities Under Fire as Crisis in Shipping Persists
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – The Day of the Seafarer, normally a day of celebration, has this year served to focus attention from all quarters on the ineffectiveness of governments around the globe to properly deal with those who are at the heart of ensuring the pandemic crisis doesn't collapse the supply chain and bring society to its knees.

Leading up to today’s event the International Maritime Organization (IMO) invited seafarers to answer questions on what a fair future for them looks like. If our electronic postbag is typical the answer is likely to be somewhat vitriolic.

At noon local time today ships around the world will sound their horns in support of the industry, however the entire profession is clearly upset that more has not been done in the way of support. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has, amongst other things, called for governments to prioritise seafarers for vaccinations and live up to their responsibilities, with Esben Poulsson, Chairman of the Board at ICS, saying:

“In my 50 years in the maritime industry, the crew change crisis has been unprecedented in the devastating impact it has had on seafarers around the world. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of hundreds of thousands of seafarers. All nations have benefited from their sacrifice throughout the pandemic. Those same nations have a duty to prioritise seafarers for vaccinations and keep their word to allow crew changes.

“We will be feeling the ripple effects of this crisis for years to come, but today, governments have a chance to take meaningful action to protect both seafarers and global trade. They must seize it. Seafarers cannot survive on platitudes. The ships sounding their horns today are letting national governments know that the world is watching.”

Government ministers have been invited to attend events around the world to assert the need for tangible action to end travel bans and initiate seafarer vaccine programmes. Meanwhile, vessels are sounding their horns at 12 noon local time on Friday, in ports including Singapore, Rotterdam, and Los Angeles. ICS has released a video spotlighting seafarers affected by the crisis. In it they urgently call on governments to recognise them as key workers in line with UN recommendations.

200,000 seafarers are currently affected by restrictions which prohibit them from leaving their ships. According to the latest data from the Global Maritime Forum, the crisis is worsening: the number of seafarers working over their contracts has grown from 5.8% in May 2021 to 7.4% in June.

ICS estimates that 900,000 seafarers are from developing nations with limited vaccine supplies. At present, 12 countries are prioritising seafarers for the vaccine and ports across the United States, and in Belgium and the Netherlands are vaccinating crews delivering goods in their ports, regardless of nationality.

ICS has published a Seafarer Vaccination Roadmap, which outlines clear steps for how countries around the world can quickly and effectively create seafarer vaccine hubs in their ports. Meanwhile, the Seafarer International Relief Fund (SIRF), set up by maritime wellbeing charities and supported by ICS, has raised more than $800,000 to support seafarers and their families who have been hard hit by the pandemic.

The view of the industry is unanimous with Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder and CEO of the Singapore based Synergy Group which manages a fleet of almost 400 vessels saying there are simple steps political leaders can take to uphold seafarer human rights and bring some order to the patchwork of Covid-related national rules that are now often making it difficult to ensure crews receive emergency treatment and vaccines.

He points out is now over a year since the profession appealed for leadership from governments yet another Day of the Seafarer is passing with the call falling on deaf ears and says, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, since March 2020 the bodies of at least 10 seafarers who died at sea have been held on ships and denied disembarkation to repatriate the remains, causing great additional grief for their friends and families. None of the seafarers died because of Covid-19.

He cites the case of the Romanian captain of the Vantage Wave who, having died on April 19 after a suspected heart attack, was carried aboard for almost two months after permission to land the body was refused and the body was still on the ship whilst the crew were facing food and water shortages at anchorage off China.

Sick crew are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to access proper treatment with Synergy Group managed ships made to wait for several days for emergency medical attention for crew. Captain Unni continues:

“This is not humane by any standards of decency. Often vessels have had to sail a significant distance to find a port or country that will accept them for medical attention. These are the people, key workers, who are keeping nations fed and warm. They are supplying the parts and equipment that are facilitating economic rebounds. Yet when they get sick they are treated in this unconscionable manner.

“And that is before we even get to the difficulties of crew changeovers which has been a minefield of regulation and constant rule changes for over a year. Some ports are now asking for two negative PCR tests with a significant gap in between for all crew before getting clearance. We are also seeing cases where PCR tests for crew came out negative in the first instance are turning positive in the second test, which essentially means that there are cases where ships are being immobilised for more than two weeks.”

“[As to vaccines] how many countries which supply seafarers have vaccines they can spare for seafarers who are often relatively young and healthy? None! And how do we ensure they get the right vaccine? Not all the jabs that area available are recognised by individual countries or by the World Health Organisation, creating a patchwork of vaccination regulations where we need global clarity. The Covaxin vaccine, for example, accounts for a large proportion of the vaccines received in India where so many of our seafarers are from. However, this is not on the WHO safe list.”

The lack of clarity, and action, by the global authorities is exacerbating an already bad situation with the failure to manage the processes needed to minimise the effects of the pandemic on the lifeline of ocean trade, and those responsible for it. These failings are making it ever harder to recruit suitable crew who are naturally unwilling to take a job with an uncertain future.

The problems are of course truly international, with Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary and International Transport Workers' Federation president Paddy Crumlin paying tribute to all seafarers, saying that his nation would grind to a halt without their efforts. He concluded:

“The Covid crisis exposed just how vital Australia’s maritime supply chains are for keeping the nation’s economy moving, and how vulnerable they are to an international crisis. At a time when the world was being locked down and consumers were facing unprecedented shortages of essential products, it was the vital work of hundreds of thousands of seafarers around the world that kept Australia moving.

“Many of those seafarers have suffered extreme hardship during the past year, with hundreds of thousands stuck on board vessels as borders shut, preventing them from returning home to their families for more than 18 months in many cases.”

Photo: Image courtesy of Asociación de Navieros Españoles – ANAVE.