How the Covid-19 crisis has left seafarers in a desperate plight

Crews across the world have been working without relief for up to 15 months – a situation that resembles forced labour. 

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When Stephen Gudgeon stepped in to captain a ship for three weeks in March, to cover for a colleague who had to go home to Croatia to resolve some personal issues, he did not expect to be there three months later. Borders closed and countries went into lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world. “We went back to Qatar and there was nothing moving, we couldn’t get ashore, we couldn’t do crew changes,” he explains. Not even the maintenance workers and inspectors could come aboard, placing a strain on the safety of ships. “We weren’t even seeing anybody.” The same was true when they went on to South Korea. Across the seas, ship crews were finding themselves trapped on board.

Seafarers can work a maximum of 11 months at sea, according to international law. In normal times, 100,000 will finish their contracts each month and go home to their families to be relieved by another crew for another 11 months. But that system was suspended in March under force majeure (extraordinary events beyond your control that enable you to break a contract). Now some crews have been working 15 straight months with no end in sight. It is a situation that increasingly resembles forced labour. 

What they are transporting is 90 per cent of all world cargo. That includes energy (oil and gas), food, medical supplies and component parts for industry. “No one seems to know where things come from,” says Mark Dickinson, head of the Nautilus International maritime union, “we are suffering from our own invisibility.” When countries went into lockdown and started introducing quarantine measures, seafarers were not part of the equation, despite the crucial role they play. Nautilus and other industry bodies have been lobbying since to change that. 

The shipping industry swiftly issued a set of protocols endorsed by the International Maritime Organisation to try to ensure the safe repatriation of seafarers. This, they argue, means force majeure no longer applies and that governments can safely restart crew changes. Gudgeon managed to leave his ship and be relieved in Milford Haven, but the incoming captain had to fly there in advance and spend two weeks in lockdown (this has now been reduced to a week with a Covid-19 test). Some of the crew on his ship had been on board for eight or nine months without leaving the ship when Gudgeon disembarked a month ago, and those sailors are still there because their home country has closed its borders.  

“It’s hard to stress the impact of a delay in your return home,” says Dickinson. A few days or weeks is not unusual, but seafarers are being told they have to stay on indefinitely because no one knows when the pandemic will end. The mental health impact has been catastrophic. There have been reports of resignations, crew fights and suicides. In Qatar, Gudgeon explains, his company is moving seafarers who have been on ships the longest on to other ships that are going to ports, so they can be relieved. “It’s a logistical nightmare,” he says. Initially, Gudgeon adds, the crew were in “two minds” about whether to return home because of the quarantine period and the relative safety from infection they had on board a ship. That quickly changed as concerns about their families grew and their wellbeing suffered. “They were tired, they were very, very tired,” he says. 

On board, facilities vary from ship to ship. Most have TVs in cabins, internet access is common but often poor quality, and some crews have to pay for the service. During the pandemic it has been a double-edged sword, keeping seafarers connected with their families but underlining their powerlessness to help them. “I’ve got guys, grown men, coming to my cabin and crying because they want to go home, or because somebody at home is ill, and I just can’t do anything about it,” explains Gudgeon. 

Herbert, a Peruvian seafarer, had signed on for ten months but three months into this spell the pandemic “destroyed all our plans”. He was locked down on board for 110 days without anything to do except work, “like a prisoner”. There was no smoking or drinking on board either. “Sometimes you are already tired being on board,” he says, but the lack of news or information about going home made it worse. Eventually, the Peruvian embassy in London got in touch to let him know they were organising flights back and the company paid for his flight home.

Panama, the country under which the largest number of ships in the world sail, announced in June that it was extending the maximum contract length by three months, before adding another three months, making a total of 17 months at sea. “At best it was insensitive, at worst it was a flagrant breach of international law and tantamount to forced labour,” says Dickinson. 

For the relief crews, their work contracts mean that if they are not on a ship, they are not paid and able to support their families. Even for some of those seafarers who have been relieved, it is unusual for them to happen to disembark into their home country. They often find themselves halfway around the world and need to travel back home, something that has become increasingly difficult during the pandemic thanks to quarantines, closed borders and a lack of flights. “You can’t send seafarers from here to the Philippines if they’re just going to get stuck,” says Dickinson, describing it as a situation in which “your own government is stopping you coming home and stopping you leave”.

Even in the UK, pay and furlough arrangements are far from straightforward. Since the late 1980s, British seafarers have been employed offshore in places such as the Channel Islands, meaning companies do not pay national insurance. Bizarrely, this practice started as a way to ensure British shipping remained competitive, while the rest of Europe was able simply to introduce a tax exemption to accomplish the same. The result is that many British seafarers are largely invisible in the case of the furlough scheme because they are not employed or paid in Britain. 

The Philippines and India, two of the largest providers of seafarers, have both barred crew changes. Nor have they classified crews as “key workers”, despite the large amount of income from remittances. This contrasts with countries such as Singapore, Sri Lanka and Canada, where restrictions are being relaxed in order to relieve the pressure. One of the side effects is that without workers from the Philippines, ships are recruiting seafarers wherever they can, with Ukraine being a popular choice. 

Shipping is legally complex. A ship can be owned in one country, fly the flag of another, be staffed by a multinational team of seafarers, and carry cargo between two countries, travelling through many more along the way. But a system of workarounds has been devised to reduce costs. For example, the most common flag a ship will fly is that of Panama, followed by the Marshall Islands and Liberia. This means the taxes and duties for shipping companies will be low. The problem is that when something goes wrong, these “flag of convenience” states tend to have neither the diplomatic power nor the will to ensure the protection of the crews on board. 

On ships, captains are being forced to make some of the hardest decisions of their careers. When things go wrong, Dickinson says, it is the captains who are criminalised, not the companies or the governments who put them in this situation. Do they persist with a crew that is increasingly physically and mentally ill? Gudgeon became so concerned about fatigue among the crew on his ship and the threat to safety that it posed, that he found ways within their contracts to achieve longer rest periods and made productivity a secondary concern. He believes fellow ship captains will be seriously considering using “master’s overriding authority”, a safety protocol that allows a captain to overrule orders from the company, charterer or port authority for the sake of the ship’s safety.

It is something Gudgeon has done only three times in 40 years at sea. “It’s got to the stage where ships may have to stop in order to allow people on board to have some rest,” he adds. 

There is also the very real risk that companies that own ships will go bankrupt and leave crews stranded in financial limbo. In 2018, an Indian captain and his crew were stuck on their ship docked in Great Yarmouth for 15 months waiting to be paid and unable to leave. In Bristol and Essex, the crews of six cruise ships went on hunger strike in June to put pressure on the companies that owned them to pay their unpaid wages, leading the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to board them.  

The fallout from the crisis is likely to take years to resolve. Dickinson believes many seafarers will be pondering whether to continue working in the sector. “The industry has been shown to be completely unprepared for these types of events,” he says. Part of the solution, he thinks, is better use of more localised labour rather than the complicated system that exists at present. The flags ships sail under and the diplomatic support that offers is another issue that will discussed in the coming years. But the immediate issues are the most pressing. “There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve got some way to go, because every month is another month without crew changes,” Dickinson concludes.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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