Currently, there are about 100,000 seafarers stranded at sea beyond their regular stints of typically 3-9 months, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). Many of them do not even have a day’s break on land, while another 100,000 are stuck on shore, unable to board the ships. This year’s World Maritime Day focuses on the struggles that seafarers face today and provides a message of support.
or a better glimpse into this dire situation, during summer almost 9% of merchant sailors were stuck aboard their ships beyond their contracts’ expiry, according to data compiled by the Global Maritime Forum non-profit group from 10 ship managers together responsible for over 90,000 seafarers. The maximum allowed contract length is 11 months, as stipulated by a U.N. seafaring convention.
This crew change crisis derives from restrictions imposed by major maritime nations across Asia, such as South Korea, Taiwan and China, which host many of the world’s busiest container ports. More specifically, in these countries, requirements range from mandatory testing for crews who come from or have visited certain countries, to outright bans on crew changes and berthing operations.
Asia really is struggling and the only countries you can go about routine crew changes to some extent are Japan and Singapore. The issue is that we have one set of people who desperately want to go home because they have finished their tenure, and another set of people onshore that are desperate to get back onboard to earn a living
commented Rajesh Unni, chief executive of Synergy Marine Group.
This crisis has led to almost half of commercial seafarers either considering leaving the industry or being unsure whether they would stay or go, says the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
Shipping industry supports seafarers
In light of the World Maritime Day 2021, IMO chose the theme to be “Seafarers: At the core of shipping’s future”. This was chosen as part of a year of action for seafarers, who play a vital role as key workers for global supply chains but are facing unprecedented hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout the year, the World Maritime Theme will also put the spotlight on other issues related to the human element of shipping, including the safety and security of life on board ships, seafarers’ well-being, and the importance of ensuring an appropriately trained and qualified workforce, ready to meet the challenges and opportunities of digitalization and automation.
Shipping drives world trade and that trade simply does not happen without seafarers. While the challenges of automation and digitalization – not to mention decarbonization – will drive change in shipping, we will always need well-trained and motivated seafarers. We must ensure a diverse and expert workforce for the ships of the twenty-first century and beyond
said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim.
Joining Mr. Lim in this call is the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, who mentioned that:
I renew my appeal to Governments to address their plight by formally designating seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers, ensuring safe crew changes, implementing established protocols, and allowing stranded seafarers to be repatriated and others to join ships
IMO welcomes participation in World Maritime Day events from stakeholders on social media, especially seafarers. Individuals and organizations are encouraged to share images on social media channels using the hashtag #WorldMaritimeDay.
What is more, as part of its efforts to put seafarers at the heart of discussions, IMO has launched a series of profiles in which seafarers express their views on their work and the future of shipping.
Furthermore, to mark the World Maritime Day 2021 on 30 September, the ITF Seafarers’ Trust is urging for greater recognition for seafarers and for governments to live up to their responsibilities.
To say that seafarers have kept the global economy moving during Covid is no exaggeration. Without them carrying on, through loneliness, home sickness, illness and uncertainty, the global supply chain would have ground to a total halt
Chair of Trustees Dave Heindel said.
For this reason, the Trust wants to see governments recognising that and living up to their responsibilities to seafarers through recognition of key worker status, access to vaccines and facilitated crew change with the appropriate legislative support.
In addition to supporting unions and welfare organisations with funding for their specific COVID projects, the Trust has also committed to giving a platform to the voices of seafarers during this challenging period, providing an insight into their life and work.
The last eighteen months of the coronavirus pandemic have been some of the hardest times for seafarers in living memory. World Maritime Day is a great opportunity for us to honour the contribution of seafarers
Head of the Trust Katie Higginbottom, stated.
As for ECSA, it sheds light on the heroism of seafarers who keep global supply chains moving during the pandemic.
A bright future for seafarers is composed of many factors, but one of them is certainly adequate training. Constant training is required for the crews already active in the global fleets and for the youngsters who have chosen the job of seafarer as their future profession. At European level, ECSA and ETF work on improving the education and training of seafarers through the EU-funded SkillSea project
added Martin Dorsman, ECSA Secretary General on the latest Day of the Seafarer.
The importance of seafarers was also recognized by New Zealand, with the Director of Maritime New Zealand Kirstie Hewlett, noting that:
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the life of a seafarer has changed significantly. It is estimated that worldwide there are up to 400,000 seafarers at sea, including some who have spent up to 20 months on board without a break or the ability to take regular shore leave at ports around the world. Many are finding it difficult to get home from overseas ports
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New Zealand remains one of a handful of countries which allows shore leave and for shipping lines to swap crews.
Commenting on what seafarers have to go through, HRAS explained that “even without the 2020 pandemic, seafarers and their families would still be suffering.”
Suicides, abandonment, missing seafarers, lack of vaccinations, denied medical treatment, denied crew changes, untreated mental illness and communication failures continue day-in and day-out. The list goes on in 2021 and seemingly without an end in sight
Seafarers’ happiness decline
The latest Seafarers Happiness Index from the Mission to Seafarers depicts “a harrowing picture,” with the lack of shore leave causing distress to many seafarers. More specifically, the report reveals that seafarers are becoming more and more frustrated due to being constantly in the same environment because of the lack of shore leave.
In fact, the absence of freedom of movement and continued extended contracts has dashed all the positive thoughts seafarers once had as boredom and irritation about many aspects of life at sea increase.
Seafarers who had been motivated to stay active during the earlier stages of their trips expressed feelings of lethargy, apathy and physical exhaustion months into their assignments
What is more, while momentum for designating seafarers as key workers was once the topic of conversation, seafarers feel like this has been put on the backburner and they’re no longer ‘flavour of the month’.
As a result, concerns over wage rises, key worker status and the fact that seafarers have been indispensable to the world economy during the pandemic have been now brought back to the fore.
The crew change crisis is far from over. The entire shipping industry, shipping companies, charterers, unions, international bodies and port states need to come together to ensure that the seafarers are appropriately treated with regards to timely crew changes, priority for COVID-19 vaccination, mental health support, etc. during this crisis
John-Kaare Aune, Interim CEO at Wallem Group noted.
Seafarers’ vaccination in the spotlight
In an effort to protect seafarers’ rights for proper medical care, the Secretary-General of the IMO and the Director-General of the ILO have issued a joint statement calling for port and coastal States to facilitate the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care as a matter of “life or death”; to prioritize seafarers for COVID-19 vaccination; and to designate seafarers as key workers, recognizing seafarers’ valuable contribution to world trade.
Receiving such care can be a matter of life or death for seafarers who fall ill while working on ships. The international community should do its utmost to support those who have maintained the global supply chain under pandemic conditions over the last 18 months and keep carrying on often despite enormous personal hardships
says the Director-General of ILO and the Secretary-General of IMO.
However, while seafarer vaccination rates are at around 21.9%, in comparison the share of the population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in the European Union is 56.6%, in Hong Kong it is 42.5%, in Japan it is 42.8%, in Singapore it is 74.3%, in the United Kingdom this is 62% and in the United States this is 51.2%.
On the positive side, countries have already started offering vaccinations to seafares. For example, Singapore has announced that it will offer vaccination to international ocean-going signing-on seafarers. Signing-on crew who will board their vessel within 24 hours upon arrival will be directly transferred to the vaccination centre upon arrival in Singapore and directly transferred to the ship after their vaccination.
Finally, following a campaign by the Seafarers’ Union of Croatia (SUC), local authorities are now offering Covid-19 vaccines to seafarers entering Croatian ports from countries outside of the European Union.
The government’s decision to extend the vaccination programme to foreign seafarers has confirmed its recognition of seafarers as key workers, according to an SUC statement.