COLUMN | Seafarers – Last in the queue [Grey Power]

Photo: Maersk Tankers

We are living in unprecedented times, in a situation where fear and uncertainty oscillate, even in the minds of practical people with heaps of common sense.

And if is bad enough on land, try and contemplate the situation afloat aboard the tens of thousands of merchant ships the world depends upon to keep it ticking over.

We are not talking about all those cruise ship passengers here, who garner all the publicity whenever merchant shipping rears its rare head in the mainstream media, but the merchant seafarers criss-crossing the globe in every conceivable type of craft and trade. What are they supposed to think as they garner what reliable news they are able to receive about the situation in their home countries?

Almost inevitably this largely unknown workforce constitutes the easy bit of a government regulator’s coronavirus agenda. There is no argument and it is the simplest action that can be taken to ban any seafarer from landing in your ports, banning all shore leave and making it impossible for crew members to be exchanged and people to go on leave at the conclusion of their tours of duty. Job done. Decisive action taken. There will be no angry objections, protest meetings or marches. Residents can breathe easily; sure that no foreign seafarers will bring the dreaded virus ashore with them.

But aboard the individual ships, each a little island of uncertainty, there will be nothing positive or supportive to cling onto. Aboard the average bulk carrier, container ship or tanker, there is a tiny society of perhaps 20 people, wondering what is going to happen next; tens of thousands of them, but separate in their small steel cells scattered across the world’s sea-lanes and moored in the world’s ports.

And in so many ships, you can scarcely describe them as constituting a society, possibly coming from different cultures and speaking different languages. Twenty such people – they don’t even constitute a village in shore-side terms –let alone a hamlet.

“A complete absence of common sense”

Shipping’s official organisations have taken up the cudgels on behalf of their workforce, with both the International Chamber of Shipping and International Transport Workers’ Federation lobbying hard to acquaint governments of this essential but invisible constituency and pointing out its important needs.

The Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation has been increasingly active in demanding that governments heed the human cost at sea and that it is seafarers who will deliver the goods that the world needs to keep ticking over, against its inevitable recovery.

But the worry is that in all the fearsome list of actions required by governments facing this global catastrophe, the needs of those small cells of seafarers aboard the world’s merchant ships will tend to come well down in the priorities facing ministers each day the virus rampages across their domestic populations.

So nobody is going to make an executive decision to suspend the ban on seafarers landing, even to get an aircraft back to their home countries, and bringing their replacements, when there is the public perception that if the bug is being imported by travellers, it is best to prevent all travel.

And with all this heavy-handed implementation of quarantine regulations, there will often be a complete absence of common sense. A message from a concerned shipmaster, worried about the virus being brought aboard his ship by shore-side workers, shows that this fear of transmission is far from a one-way business.

“We surely cannot contemplate a situation that will confine seafarers perpetually on their ships”

The ship may be perfectly healthy, its crew admittedly angry that they will have to wait fourteen days to even begin to load or discharge cargo, but what of all the folk who come aboard? The customs officers, agents, providores, the port state control officers, surveyors of various kinds, the dockers – does anyone know what virus they might be harbouring, even if they are wearing surgical masks and maintain a respectful distance from one another?

Would the master be justified in demanding to know the body temperature of all these boarders, and refusing to allow anyone looking a bit sweaty to come aboard the ship? You can imagine the reaction, but don’t those aboard ship have the same human rights of protection against disease as anyone else?

Maersk, with around 350 ships under their control, quite simply told their crews there would be no reliefs for a month, which at least removed doubt and uncertainty, even if it was the last news they wanted to hear. Hopefully, in the intervening weeks, something might be done to provide some sort of clarity in the treatment of international seafarers.

One might imagine that some sort of protocol might be devised by the International Maritime Organisation, those practical people in the ICS and ITF, the World Health Organisation and any other body with appropriate expertise.

We surely cannot contemplate a situation that will confine seafarers perpetually on their ships – a million and a half Flying Dutchmen – condemned to circumnavigate the world, bringing us the goods we cannot do without. Seafarers shouldn’t be the last in the queue.

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.