COLUMN | An invisible workforce [Grey Power]

Photo: Mission to Seafarers

This is being written on the “International Day of the Seafarer”, June 25, which, if you consider the way that society is currently treating this essential workforce, appears somewhat ironic.

Since Covid-19 raised its ugly head, and for at least the past four months, the maritime world has been screaming out for governments to recognise that seafarers who carry around the goods and fuel we all depend on represent a special case. They are human beings with rights, and deserve to be treated in a more understanding fashion than seeing their case being dumped in the “too hard” basket on official desks. There is a lot of what might be described as “collateral damage” arising from this pandemic, and the plight of seafarers unable to leave or join their ships falls into this category in a spectacular fashion.

Many of those operating cruise ships, have been able to cobble together arrangements for crew reliefs, because of the sheer numbers of staff involved and where necessary, the ability to use the ships themselves to transport their huge crews home.

Where charter flights have been a possibility, their numbers have made this a sensible alternative. But for the bulk of the world’s fleet, who operate less glamorous tonnage, it has remained a real struggle with bureaucracy and officialdom, with quarantine regulations being used as a padlock to keep ports shut for any crew relief. It might be suggested that it is the easiest thing in the world for an official to say “no” to any possibilities to exchange a few crew members from a ship engaged on its vital mission, than ever to say “yes”.

“Contracts to be extended ad infinitum”

There are no airlines operating from the port, at least to where the crew need to travel. There are no hotels open where crew members could await their ship, or stay until a flight is available. The quarantine arrangements will be too inflexible to accommodate the needs of half a dozen seafarers who should have been sent home on leave three months earlier.

There are, in some parts of the world, ridiculous conditions attached to crew exchange, which are deliberately made impractical, even when a ship is healthy and has been many weeks on passage from her last port. It may be impolitic to suggest that much of this is the time-honoured bureaucratic solution of merely forcing a problem to go away – let some other port deal with the difficulties.

It is really no solution for flag states to merely permit contracts to be extended ad infinitum, hoping that eventually, the pandemic will die down and normal life can be resumed. Neither is it a viable solution for administrations and port state control to get all heavy handed and detain ships because the crew are out of their contracts. The operators need solutions as much as their employees, and if it all ends up in a maze of contradictory rules and regulations, with the ship being the “pig in the middle”, that isn’t helpful, either.

When all this is behind us, it would good if there is some sort of inquiry into the way that seafarers have been treated in this global emergency, and it is unlikely that officialdom will come out of it well in very many countries that depend upon the regular passage of ships with their imports and exports.

Not wanted

It has not been easy, with airports closed and travel greatly restricted and the imposition of strict quarantine regulations. And while 900 crew due to be relieved on a cruise ship may require urgent solutions, half a dozen seafarers off a bulk carrier don’t register as “urgent”, no matter how grievous their plight.

It is small wonder that seafarers’ websites and professional publications are increasingly giving voice to people who are getting desperate about ever getting home. It seems quite extraordinary that governments can quickly agree that people like international lorry drivers are a “special case” as regards quarantine rules, but the plight of international seafarers can be ignored.

In his celebrated book about the Battle of Atlantic, the historian former seafarer Richard Woodman cited the often appalling treatment of survivors from torpedoed merchant ships, invariably far worse than those from the armed forces. To distinguish these non-uniformed seafarers from the rest of the population, they were issued with MN badges, which, when they had been treated particularly badly they would turn upside down. The “NW”, they protested, denoted “not wanted”, and there is a bit of this attitude prevailing eighty years on.

In July, the British Government, along with industry partners, which include the International Chamber of Shipping, is to hold an international “summit” on the issue of crew changes, which might be thought important, if overdue. The ICS’ Guy Platten (another former seafarer) points out that this is not an initiative in which there will be demands for money – there just needs to be a willingness to cut though the red tape.

It is an international problem that needs international solutions, to provide simple and sensible protocols that will facilitate the exchange of 200,000 crewmembers. They don’t want their contracts extended, those aboard ship want to get home and their reliefs need to be able to relieve them.

Everyone is currently banging on in the industry about the mental health of seafarers . It is scarcely promoting their mental health to deny them the basic human right of going home on leave.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.