Human Rights At Sea highlights plight of seafarers stranded by Covid-19

UK-based NGO Human Rights at Sea has said that it had been “deluged” with cases of seafarers who had been kept on vessels after sign-off, or who had been left ashore, stranded, in foreign countries without funds.

Although the impact of Covid-19 was urgently being addressed by organizations such as the ICS, ITF and Intermanager, with input from the global welfare organizations, the flow of cases to the charity, particularly from Indian seafarers, had been unprecedented.

Reports of non-payment of wages, contract extensions without informed consent, crew being left in foreign States to pay hotel bills and to seek flights home using their own funds, appeared to be increasing, said Human Rights At Sea.

Many seafarers who had contacted the charity said that the lack of direct engagement and their inability to be able to be part of decision-making process involving their employment, personal liberty and access to their families, was affecting their health.

Indian seafarer Mehrzad Wadiwalla contacted the charity whilst stuck in Zarzis, Tunisia. He arrived on March 6th via Tunis to join his ship, but by March 16th the port had stopped crew changes, and he had to return to a hotel. He has since tried to book flights home to India, with his own funds, and was now paying for his food and accommodation.

Human Rights at Sea CEO David Hammond, said that “there appears to be a tipping-point which has just been passed for many seafarers who now feel abandoned in the widest sense of the word. Those who made contact are asking for their cases to be highlighted to prevent fellow seafarers from being placed in the same situation, with others recognizing the necessary health constraints while reflecting on owners’ efforts to assist.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) had said that crews keen to either get home or start work were facing “unprecedented delays”, while effectively agreeing for shipmanagers and owners to extend time onboard through to April 16th. In a letter sent by ITF maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith to affiliates the ITF said that “in order to mitigate problems surrounding the replacement of crew, the ITF has decided that during the period from March 17th 2020 to April 16th 2020 it would not be challenging extensions of contracts of up to one month, even when these pushed the seafarers service periods past the maximum allowable by relevant ITF approved CBA [or MLC], provided individual seamers consented to such extensions.

Maersk announced last week that all crew changes for all its boxships would be suspended for four weeks until April 14th.

The International Labour Office, which serves as the permanent secretariat for the International Labour Organization, last week ruled that flag states could forgo Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) annual leave entitlements for crew.

In a joint letter the ITF and ICS asked UN agencies to facilitate crew changes amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, and Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, of the International Transport Workers’ Federation called on them to facilitate crew changes to keep world trade moving throughout the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, it is important for the world’s governments to fully understand that around 90% of global trade is transported by commercial shipping, which moves the world’s food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components – including vital medical supplies and many products sold in supermarkets, items that are necessary (due to complex supply chains) for the preservation of many jobs in manufacturing – without which modern society simply cannot function”, the letter said

It observed that 100,000 seafarers every month needed to be changed over from the ships which they operate in order to comply with relevant international maritime regulations, governing safe working hours and crew welfare, so that they can continue to transport global trade safely.

“In view of their vital role during the global pandemic, we suggest that professional seafarers, regardless of nationality, should be treated as any other international ‘key workers’, such as airline crew and medical personnel.  As such, they should be afforded special consideration and, notwithstanding the need to comply with emergency health protocols, treated with pragmatism and understanding when seeking to travel to and from their ships”, Platten and Cotton wrote.