There are currently 400,000 seafarers stuck at sea, according to IMO, due to government’s travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. What is more, the number of reported abandonment cases doubled from 40 in 2019 to 85 in 2020, according to the International Labour Organization, with seafarers taking a significant hit in their wellbeing.
Well-being issues due to abandonment on the rise
ccording to a recent LR survey, crew are feeling forgotten and abandoned, with ship staff being the ones hardest hit by COVID-19. Namely, LR asked respondents to rate how strongly they agreed with a range of statements on their health and wellbeing. Ship staff more often responded ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, or ‘somewhat disagree’ to the statements. For example, 11% of ship staff said they strongly disagreed with the statement “I am able to focus on tasks at hand” compared with 6% of shore staff.
Meanwhile, 20% of ship staff strongly disagreed with “I woke up today feeling rested” as opposed to 11% for shore staff, and 16% strongly disagreed with the statement “I feel happy and in good spirits” while 8% of shore staff strongly disagreed with this. What is more, ship staff were more negative about their situation across the board, with workload and fatigue, quality and variety of food, and lack of exercise all being areas of concern. Maintaining good mental and physical health was another issuem which requires a holistic approach with a good diet, exercise, rest, and support mechanisms needed.
Unsurprisingly, given ship staff’s negative responses in these areas, they did not have a positive outlook on their situation or the work they are carrying out
In fact, only 13% of ship staff strongly agreed that they are performing an essential role during the pandemic, and just 8% strongly agreed they feel valued in their role.
Taking these answers into consideration, it is not hard to see a possible link between ship staff’s current crew change plight and their views on how essential they are. More, specifically, a crew member wrote they felt “abandoned by my own government”, with another writing:
We work for each and every one of you to have food, water, fuel, cars, etc. We need support in this tough time, but we were forgotten and abandoned by everybody
Another important issue that the LR survey revealed is that the respondents, particularly ship staff, reported issues with their organisation’s communication. In fact, 19% of ship staff strongly disagreed that their company answers staff questions and concerns quickly and in full, compared with 12% of shore staff.
In the meantime, 15% of ship staff strongly disagreed that the company effectively communicates the reasons behind any COVID-19-related actions taken, compared with 11% for shore staff. Furthermore, 18% responded that they strongly disagreed that actions are taken promptly when wellbeing concerns are raised, compared with 13% of shore staff.
Addressing seafarers’ well-being
According to ISWAN, bankruptcy and financial losses due to the COVID 19 pandemic are being attributed as the leading cause of such a rise in abandonment cases.
Unfortunately, some of these shipowners have indulged in unethical practices and forgotten their own employees
However, the poor and compromising attitude of some of these operators can have an impact on the overall stature of the profession as well.
The responsible parties could have tried to explore possible solutions to resolve the crisis rather than putting the lives of the seafarers in danger
Nonetheless, there are solutions that could help seafarers feel less abandoned and more heard, such as:
- Lobbying countries who still have not ratified the MLC 2006. As per the ILO website, nearly 90 countries have yet not signed the crucial amendment which was brought in to protect the rights of seafarers.
- Raising awareness among seafarers on the provisions in the MLC 2006 and how to identify an abandonment case, whom to approach and where to find assistance.
Making free legal aid available for seafarers to guide them and identify steps through legal recourse to help resolve their issues and facilitate repatriation. “It has been observed that most of the cases concerning abandonment are drawn into legal battles and the crew often have no knowledge or awareness on it”, says ISWAN.
- Setting up dedicated funds that can help the seafarers who are abandoned on vessels, especially those which do not comply with the provisions of the MLC 2006. This could reduce the ongoing stresses on seafarers who often do not have the proper means to survive in difficult circumstances.
- Seafarers need psychological and humanitarian support after returning home, and such funds can look after the necessary and essential needs which may help to improve the individual’s mental as well as physical wellbeing.
Imposing strict penalties and penal provisions in law against operators who wilfully abandon the crew at mercy o other stakeholders and to implement existing rules and laws.
- Posting all the free and confidential mental wellbeing helplines on board ships.
- Creating a video/podcast campaign to include seafarers talking about their own mental health, and company CEOs talking about its importance.
- Providing a mental health first aider training for a group of employees.
To conclude, it all comes down to one thing: proper communication. Companies should take responsibility to provide regular updates regarding the COVID-19 precautions being taken, as well as the measures that are in place, and what they are doing to embark and disembark crew members safely. That way, seafarers will know what awaits them, and will have the opportunity to prepare themselves and their families, in case of a prolonged absence from the house.