Seafarers onboard cargo ships are in effect prisoners unable to leave ship, even to go ashore briefly when in port.
As countries across the world have imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, merchant ship crews are collateral damage.
There are up to two million seafarers working on board various types of merchant ships.
These men and women are responsible for transporting 90 percent of the world’s goods.
Workers live and work onboard for months at a time. An average crew size is just 23 people.
In a normal month, approximately 100,000 seafarers leave their ships and are replaced by others.
But these crew changes have been cancelled.
It is estimated that some 200,000 seafarers are currently stuck out at sea. Roughly the same number are stuck on shore, waiting to get back to work or in some cases to get home.
Officers usually sign on for three to four months, the rest of the crew for around seven months. But they normally have an end date.
Instead, one ship’s officers are currently eight months into a four-month contract. The crew is 13 months into a seven-month contract.
After extending their contracts they were supposed to be replaced in mid-March in Qatar. But the ship continued on to South Korea, Japan, South Korea again and on to Singapore and Thailand.
And on the Berlin Express cargo ship, 18 of the 23 people on board were due for a crew change when it moored in Valencia, Spain in late May.
The officers had extended what were normally three-month contracts to five months, while the mostly Filipino crew had been on board for nine months, instead of four.
According to the captain Stephan Berger, “It feels sometimes like a prison.” In a desperate bid to keep seafarers on ships, bosses are promising low paid workers a pay rise.
On another container ship, apprentice Hannah Gerlach was to sign off in mid-March in Singapore.
She is currently off the coast of Thailand and said, “I definitely miss my family very much.
“And I miss just these moments of a normal life, to have the possibility to go out for a walk, to the forest, to ride the bicycle.
“You don’t know any more when your contract will end, when you have the chance to see your family again.”
Every day that passes, even more seafarers are finishing their expected tour of duty but remain stranded.
Seafarers’ action could impact on global production systems
A 15 June deadline was set by the union representing seafarers, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), to resolve getting crews home. And nothing happened.
The bosses’ organisations and the pope have all said the situation is untenable. There may be workers’ action on a global scale to end the chaos.
Up till now the ITF and affiliated unions did not fight contract extensions for crew who were unable to be repatriated.
The workers’ organisation has a new strategy that it says “could be highly disruptive to global trade.”
According to ITF president Paddy Crumlin, “Today is the day we make it crystal clear to governments that seafarers are going to start enforcing their right to stop working and return home.”
If a seafarer’s employment contract expires when a vessel is at sea, the ITF told crew to continue working until the ship is at its next port, then stop working.
If it’s impossible to get the uncontracted crew off the ship before it sails again, the union says they should not work, but “remain onboard as a passenger”.
The new policy does not explicitly tell union members to stop signing contract extensions.
But it emphasises that the union doesn’t support extensions, that seafarers have no obligation to sign extensions, and that the ITF will do its best to help crew get home if they don’t.
ITF general secretary Steve Cotton said, “If getting seafarers off these ships causes chaos in supply chains, if ports back up from Singapore to San Francisco, and if this causes ship insurance providers to pull their coverage and global trade to grind to a halt, then that is on the heads of the politicians, not the world’s seafarers.”
In an industry that frequently treats its lowest paid workers with utter contempt and blacklists activists, it will take serious action to improve the situation.
Miserable conditions on board ship
Seafarers are feeling trapped and tired with paranoia.
Those are among the findings of the Seafarers Happiness Index, a seafarer survey from the first three months of the year.
“Seafarers reported feeling that not enough is being done to ensure the safety of those on board.
“They reported feeling physically exhausted, mentally disturbed, homesick and anxious,” the report said.
“Seafarers are not only dealing with normal cargo operations but are also coping with precautions, sanitising and living under a constant fear of infection.”
According to the survey, 48 percent were from the Indian subcontinent, 24 percent from Southeast Asia, and 9 percent from western Europe.
Crew reported abuse from superiors, including name-calling and harassment.
The report warned that feelings of dread and paranoia are creeping in, as seafarers fear that the closed spaces on board and the air conditioning systems could help spread the virus.