Imagine leaving your loved ones, boarding a ship (for what you thought was a specified time) and now, not knowing when you will be able to return.
This is the plight of thousands of seafarers the world over, who are working on ships so that you can get everything you need – food, medicines, supplies, provisions, etc.
Everything you see around you has (in all probability), at some point, traversed by sea and made its way to you.
The invisible workforce that makes your life comfortable and convenient are the more than 1.6 million seafarers around the world operating to keep the supply lines moving and alive.
Today on Labour Day, we pay tribute to these brave souls, the backbone of the maritime industry.
These men and women sail on different types of ships for a stipulated amount of time through contractual agreements (that can range from 3 to 11 months) with companies. However, at present, many of them have completed their contracts but aren’t able to get home due to port closures, unavailability of flights, restricted crew changes, and a host of other obstacles.
Seafarers who are onboard vessels are unable to sign off at the end of their contracts and new crew cannot sign-on.
Travel restrictions globally have made it next to impossible for the crew to board a vessel or leave a vessel. Many seafarers are going through financial crises as they are unable to resume work. Besides all this, there is a concern for the mental health of seafarers in these difficult days.
Seafarers are at the heart of global supply chains. Currently, even while air traffic has been stopped in many places, goods continue to move by sea.
Several seafarers have been stuck onboard above and beyond their normal working periods. This is amounting to physical exhaustion, mental stress and anxiety. There are several stories of seafarers having missed important life events – marriages, the birth of children, death of loved ones, etc.
Seafarers provide a vital service in these difficult and unprecedented times. Due to the spurt in COVID-19 cases, they are worried about their families and want to return home. It is not just the seafarers, but also, the families back home that are worried about their loved ones onboard the ship.
Imagine being trapped in your office with no way to get home after putting in overtime, being exhausted and longing to be reunited with your family – how would you feel?
Estimates suggest that every month, 100,000 seafarers finish their contracts and would normally be flown home – but the coronavirus has had a huge negative impact on this repatriation process.
Additionally, it has been reported that in some parts of the world, suppliers have been prevented from boarding ships to give masks, overalls and other personal protective equipment to crews.
Ports in some parts of the world have also refused to allow some ships to enter because they had previously docked in areas affected by COVID-19, preventing vessels from obtaining essential supplies.
To this effect, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, has asked governments “to ensure that, in these challenging times, seafarers are adequately protected from the COVID-19 pandemic, have access to medical care, and can travel to and from their ships, as necessary, in order to continue to play their crucial role”.
There is a call for the world to recognise seafarers as “key workers”.
A statement from the IMO SG to seafarers dated 20th April 2020, said, “I have written to all our Member States, urging them to recognize all seafarers as “key workers”, remove any barriers to your documentation and lift national travel restrictions so that you can get home on conclusion of your contracts, and rejoin your families. And members of my team here at IMO have been working round the clock to help bring individual cases to a speedy resolution.”
International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and its global network of national member associations and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and its 215 seafarers’ unions are calling on seafarers across the world to sound their ships’ horns when in port at 12.00 local time on International Workers’ Day on 1 May 2020, a day that is recognised in many countries around the world, to celebrate and acknowledge the contribution made by workers across the world.
You can click on the button to sound the horn if you wish.. 🙂
ITF and ICS are encouraging this gesture of solidarity to recognise the over 1.6 million seafarers across the world, the unsung heroes of global trade, who are keeping countries supplied with food, fuel and important supplies such as vital medical equipment not only through the Covid-19 pandemic but every day.
Guy Platten, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Shipping said “Our seafarers are the unsung heroes of global trade and we must not forget the contribution that they are making every day to keep our countries supplied with the goods that we need. The sounding of a ships’ horn in ports on the day that the world recognises the contribution of workers is an ideal way to remind us all of their sacrifice. They are all Heroes at Sea.”
Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said “The ITF welcomes this initiative and call on seafarers to sound their ships’ horns in a global expression of solidarity, but importantly to also ensure that the spotlight remains on how critical seafarers are to ensure that essential goods continue to be transported around the world during this crisis. Governments should see this as a call to action to facilitate crew changes and the free movement of seafarers so that they can continue to keep supply chains moving in these unprecedented times.”
However, until this is done and sorted out in totality, in this time of uncertainty, what can we do?
We reached out to ISWAN, Mission Seafarers India Association (Mission to Seafarers – India Chapter) and Sailors Society for their inputs on what efforts are being carried out and how can the community support these unsung heroes.
Chirag Bahri, Director of Regions, ISWAN, says, “The seafarers are going through various challenges during the present time. They have to extend their contracts, are stressed due to the inability to support their loved ones at home, expensive communication onboard etc.
The mental well-being of Seafarers is impacted and they need to continue to follow advisories of their companies, Government etc. ISWAN is providing support to Seafarers who are stranded in their country or overseas with limited financial grants to look after their ongoing essential needs and shall continue to highlight their issues with relevant stakeholders across the world.
SeafarerHelp helpline is available for Seafarers and their families free of cost, 24×7, who can provide emotional support or try to assist with any other support as required.”
The SeafarerHelp helpline is direct dial +44 20 7323 2737 and email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mission to Seafarers started it’s India Chapter last year and the aim is to reach out to seafarers visiting Indian Ports to provide welfare services, assist families of seafarers going through difficult times and provide advocacy support to seafarers.
Presently, MtS India offers the following services to seafarers – Ship-visiting, Flying Angel Centres (Mariner’s Centre, JNPT), Justice and welfare services, Communication, Counselling, Free Transport for Seafarers, Emergency Support, Post-trauma care, High-level advocacy and Spiritual Support.
Rev. Nitin Dethe of the Mission to Seafarers states, “The Mission to Seafarers (MtS) is standing with the seafarers to help them through this difficult phase of COVID-19. MtS port chaplains are unable to visit vessels in most ports across countries due to severe government restrictions.
It is now much more difficult to provide the kind of practical, pastoral and welfare intervention seafarers normally expect from us – and this at a time when mental health and well-being is more of an issue than ever. To that end, MtS has launched a major focus on “digital chaplaincy”.
We are supporting chaplains in maintaining digital and social media contact with their seafarer networks.
More than that, and in collaboration with ecumenical partners, we have launched a “Chat to a Chaplain” service. This is a major digital facility allowing 25 chaplains at any one time to connect with seafarers who may want to talk or seek support and advice.
Our ‘Chat to a Chaplain’ helpline will work collaboratively with the ISWAN seafarer helpline and the icall centre, supported by Synergy.”
Capt. V.M. Joy, Community Development Manager, Sailors Society, said, “I am receiving several calls from the seafarers as well as the family members. Some of the seafarers are keen to know if they can sign off in Indian ports. I have told them that the government has issued the necessary notification with regard to crew change and they will be able to sign off in Indian ports. I have asked them to get in touch with us if they are facing any problems.
Recently in Chennai port one of the seafarers faced difficulties in signing off. The matter was taken up with the shipping company, DG Shipping, and port authorities and within a few hours the issue was sorted out and he was able to get down from the ship. As an organization and as a community we have a responsibility to support the seafarers and the families at this critical hour.
It is our duty to help keep the seafarer’s morale high. The Sailors Society’s Crisis Response Network (CRN) is a 24-hour support service for seafarers and their families in crisis. The CRN takes confidentiality very seriously and does not share personal information without consent.
We provide a wide range of confidential free services, including trauma care, emotional, and mental health support as well as humanitarian assistance. Each case is treated on an individual basis, and we discuss with survivors of trauma the best course of action.
CRN takes confidentiality seriously and does not share any personal information without prior consent. If seafarers feel the need for our services or you know someone who does, please, contact us.”
Seafarers/families can chat with Sailors Society by logging onto www.wellnessatsea.org/covid-19 or call +1-938-222-8181. Capt. Joy can be reached (by Indian seafarers) on +91 7358702482.
It is clear to see that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on both global shipping which moves 90% of world trade, and the working conditions of the nearly two million seafarers.
The message to seafarers is “You are not alone. You are not forgotten”, IMO SG, Mr. Kitack Lim. There are efforts to bring you home safely and reunite you with your families. “We are listening. We hear you.”, he adds.
There are small things that all of us can do to support our seafarers – if there is a family you know that has a seafarer out at sea, reach out to them, to your seafarer friends, thank them for what they do and reassure them that their families back home will be taken care of.
Additionally, you can donate to below organisation who are assisting in the repatriation of seafarers and providing financial assistance to families in need.
- ISWAN (https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/donation-web/charity?charityId=1008299&stop_mobi=yes),
- Mission to Seafarers (https://www.missiontoseafarers.org/donate) or
- Sailors Society (https://www.sailors-society.org/give)
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About the Author
Priyanka is an expert in content architecture, marketing, PR & communications.
She has been Managing Editor for a leading global maritime publication, is a Director on the Board of Mission Seafarers India Association, a passionate advocate for seafarer issues and a champion for gender diversity.
She is a technology enthusiast and enjoys working with companies to elevate their brand presence and widen their reach.