The COVID Crew Change Crisis

“I don’t know how to tell you this… I am sorry but [your brother] passed away this morning… He is at peace now.”

I had to read the message several times before the meaning of the words sank in. Disbelief, anger, confusion, shock, betrayal and fear washed over me. It took a long time before I could process the implications.

There’s never a good time to receive the news that your brother has died. Whether you’re in the same hospital room or in the same country, there’s no way to escape the breaking wave of emotion. My brother was in Australia. I’m a crew member on a ship that’s quarantined in the Canary Islands.

I’m now part of the growing group of seafarers whose family members have died ashore during the pandemic. Just on my ship, there are three of us; a fourth recently got back to the UK in time to watch his father die. Of the three of us still on board, I’m the lucky one. In theory, if I could get a flight, I could travel to Australia. I wouldn’t be out of quarantine in time for the funeral, and my company would have trouble getting anyone to replace me, but I could do it.

Another crew member’s mother died several weeks ago. He’s still here, and he won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Like a quarter of our crew, he’s stranded on board. Some crew can’t get a visa to travel from the ship to the airport to fly to their home country. Some aren’t allowed back into their home country because the borders are closed. For some, the only flights home go through countries that don’t allow transit without a visa — and they can’t get a visa. Most of our crew haven’t been ashore or had direct contact with outsiders since the 11th of March.

One of our crew is pregnant; she’s due within days. She’s been trying to get home for months, but she’s still stuck on board. I’m grateful that we’re one of the few lucky ships: we have a doctor on board. Most ships don’t. On any of my previous ships, I’d be responsible for working out how to deliver and care for a newborn and dealing with any complications. Like most officers in the merchant navy, I’ve had five days of medical training.

Seafarers keep international trade moving. When you go to the supermarket to buy some tasty treats to help you feel better during lockdown, you have seafarers to thank. When you buy a new pair of shoes, a toothbrush or socks, you have seafarers to thank. When you don a mask to protect you from the virus, you have seafarers to thank. When you take medication or use medical equipment, you have seafarers to thank. 

Without seafarers, you could only buy things that your country produces, and no single country manufactures or grows everything their people need.

Seafarers are human beings, not machines. We have families, we have homes, and we struggle with being isolated and stressed, just like you. But we can’t go to the supermarket. We can’t buy a new pair of boots or a toothbrush when ours wear out. 

We can’t go home without your help. And you can’t keep your economies going without our help.

After three months of trying to convince governments to take action on crew change, in mid-June the International Transport Workers’ Federation encouraged seafarers to strike if governments continued to deny their right to repatriation under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006.

Seafarers have been shouting into the void, and enough is enough. The crew on three ships in Australia are on strike demanding repatriation, and this number will only increase. We need your help.

But didn’t seafarers choose to put themselves in this situation?

No. If you choose to work in an office, does that give your government the right to lock you in that office for seventeen months? Of course not: you signed up to work for a certain length of time. Once that time is up, you have a right to go home. 

Our ships are the equivalent of your offices. To refuse seafarers the right to repatriation at the end of our contracts is equivalent to refusing to allow you to leave your workplace at the end of your working day.

Seafarers work under the Maritime Labor Convention 2006 (MLC). It’s known colloquially as the Seafarers’ Bill of Rights and a long list of countries have ratified it.

The countries that ratified the MLC agreed to ensure that seafarers:

  1. are repatriated at the end of their contracts (regulation 2.5); and 
  2. receive access to appropriate medical care (Regulation 4.1). 

Most of these countries are not complying with their legal obligations under MLC, let alone with their basic moral obligations to the seafarers they depend on.

So, what needs to happen?

On the face of it, it’s very simple: governments need to comply with their obligations under the Maritime Labor Convention 2006.

The relevant regulations are:

MLC Regulation 2.5 — Repatriation

Purpose: To ensure that seafarers are able to return home

1. Seafarers have a right to be repatriated at no cost to themselves in the circumstances and under the conditions specified in the Code.

Standard A2.5.1 — Repatriation

1. Each Member shall ensure that seafarers on ships that fly its flag are entitled to repatriation in the following circumstances:

(a) if the seafarers’ employment agreement expires while they are abroad;

7. Each Member shall facilitate the repatriation of seafarers serving on ships which call at its ports or pass through its territorial or internal waters, as well as their replacement on board.

Governments need to acknowledge the problem and work together to facilitate crew change. Departing crew need to travel from ships to airports; the crew who relieve them need to enter the country and travel to the ship. 

Agents and companies need to be able to arrange this in a sensible time frame: requiring nine months notice for a transit visa application, or several weeks processing time for crew change paperwork is equivalent to a ban.

Regulation 4.1 — Medical care on board ship and ashore

Purpose: To protect the health of seafarers and ensure their prompt access to medical care on board ship and ashore

3. Each Member shall ensure that seafarers on board ships in its territory who are in need of immediate medical care are given access to the Member’s medical facilities on shore.

Seafarers are being denied medical treatment ashore for conditions ranging from broken bones and stroke to mouth cancer. This needs to stop. Even without the MLC, COVID is no excuse to abandon basic humanity.

What can you do?

For years, seafaring has been a silent, hidden industry. Most people ashore don’t know a single person working in the shipping industry. They don’t think about how their “Made in China” t-shirts, or their New Zealand lamb travelled to their country. This means that most people don’t think about the crew change crisis. Talk to your friends about it, post on social media, petition your MP, get the message out there.

Seafarers are human, but we’re often classed as foreigners and outsiders. We need people ashore to support us so that we can support you. Without public pressure from locals, it’s too easy for governments to ignore us. 

Raise awareness. Ask your friends where their food, medicine, and electronics come from. Tell them about the crew change crisis. Ask them to speak up before it’s too late.

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