Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been on board for many months longer than planned, stranded at sea due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Six months after the problem was first revealed, many of them are still struggling to cope with the ongoing uncertainty.
Throughout the year, the maritime transport industry has managed stay afloat, allowing food, medicine and other essential goods to be transported across the world, to stock the shelves even during the strictest lockdowns.
However, many seafarers were forced to stay at sea for several months longer than planned, sometimes for over a year: as 2020 comes to a close, the UN maritime agency (IMO), estimates that some 400,000 seafarers, from all over the world, are still on their ships, even though their contracts have ended, unable to be repatriated. Another 400,000 are thought to be stuck at home due to the restrictions, unable to join ships and provide for their families.
‘We didn’t sign up for this’
The mental health of seafarers has been sorely tested, as Matt Forster, an English Chief Engineer, based mainly on an oil tanker in the Middle East and Asia, told UN News in July. His contract was well overdue at the time, and he was having difficulty coping with the separation from his two small children.
"I’ve done long contracts before, but this is different", he said. "It has a psychological effect, as there is no end in sight. It affects family life a lot more. My children are always asking me when I am coming home. It’s difficult to explain to them".
Mr. Forster is now back in England, reunited with his children, but his experience has made him think twice about his choice of career. "We wanted to go to work, do our bit, and then come home. We didn’t sign up for what felt like an unwanted prison sentence", he says.
"I don’t want to go back if I am going to get stuck again for another six months. And it’s not just me: a lot of other seafarers around the world feel the same way. It’s going to cause people to leave the industry."
We have rights as human beings
The plight of seafarers this year has been described by IMO as an infringement of human rights. Speaking on Human Rights Day, in December, the head of the agency, Kitack Lim, paid tribute to maritime "frontline workers", and invited countries to ensure that their rights to safe and decent work conditions are recognized, respected and protected.
Hedi Marzougui, an American captain, echoed Mr. Lim’s calls, and expressed his concerns about the mental health strain exerted on crews by the extended period on board.
"The longer you stay out there, the more fatigued you get physically. The hours, weeks and months start to add up, you get very tired, and you are not as sharp," he said, adding that exhaustion can lead to accidents.
"We also have rights as human beings, we have families of our own. We have a life to get back to", added Captain Marzougui. "We're not robots, we shouldn't be seen as second-class citizens".
Supporting essential workers
- For several months, IMO has been pushing for all governments to classify seafarers and other marine personnel as "essential workers" and, by December, around 45 countries had done so, which will make it easier for safe crew changeovers to take place, but this still leaves workers from many countries lacking the same protection.
- During the pandemic the agency’s Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) has helped thousands of distressed seafarers in desperate conditions, defending their rights to decent working conditions, access to shore-based medical care and repatriation.
- The UN General Assembly has also called on UN Member States to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers, in a resolution adopted on 1 December.