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Opinion: COVID-19-The Seafarers’ Struggles?

Industry Announcement: CEO David Hammond shares his thoughts and position from recent evidence presented to the charitable NGO for what appears to be an unexplained under-reporting of the detail of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on displaced and abandoned* seafarers (*general ‘abandonment’ not commercial maritime definition), as well as their suffering families.

Reporting for seven years without fear or favour, Human Rights at Sea continues to independently highlight the detailed plight of seafarers and fishers working at the front-end keeping our global supply chains open with food on our tables, goods delivered and raw materials for manufacturing industries flowing.

Rightly alongside our respective State emergency services, armed forces and frontline critical care workers, seafarers are our savours for those of us fortunate enough to receive goods delivered by sea during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Meantime, globally, there will be thousands of humans who will not be so lucky to receive such support. Let us not ignore them just because it may be a difficult consideration, or far away from one’s own reality.

The high-levels of eventual casualties of COVID-19, besides those reported throughout Europe and China, will most likely be reflected in those living in the developing world, those trapped in immigration and asylum centres, those in need of UN feeding programmes, those moving on global migratory routes fleeing wars, oppression, sexual servitude, slavery and trafficking, and unaccompanied minors.

In better times, such casualties of circumstance may well have been the focus of corporate social responsibility programmes enhancing commercial image and the ‘ticking of the social welfare box’.

For the maritime sector, such casualties may include crew (and passengers) who are asymptomatic with no reported symptoms but are still contagious, are unlucky enough to become ill ashore, or become ill in an enclosed vessel which is then prevented either temporarily or permanently from gaining port entry, or from obtaining timely-resupply of essential medical supplies and therefore essential succour. 

Arguably, it is not going to be too long before yellow flags are flown on commercial vessels denoting the ship is under quarantine; but who will report this publicly preventing it being hidden behind corporate, or flag State veils? Who will track the consequences for those it affects?

THE CURRENT NARRATIVE

What we are currently seeing portrayed through established media and social media outlets is an unbalanced advancing of the corporate ‘seafarers will not leave their posts’ stoic narrative. But this is not balanced, nor is it entirely correct. Much is going on that is yet unreported.

Meantime, the current public narrative fails to address, in any detail, the very real hardships of the many seafarers who underpin commercial maritime development and its profit. This most probably relates to the inconvenient and uncomfortable truth of the current situation.

That said, not everyone in the industry is towing the party line.

On 25 March, the New York Times issued a telling article ‘Trapped at Sea by Covid-19 Lockdowns, Crew Members Plead for Help‘ which was contributed to by numerous leading maritime industry figures, including the outspoken Mr. Frank Coles, CEO of Hong Kong based Wallem Group who previously has systematically challenged the maritime industry dystopian structures, as well as myself who was separately asked to provide evidence and access to seafarers suffering at the present time. At that time our NGO had been deluged with pleas for help, despite it not being a welfare organisation.

THE REACTION

A response later that day via Whats App from a senior maritime industry leader was astonishing, if not seriously disturbing. In relation to the NYT article, the first point made was: Quote. “…although probably factual [,] tone does not help. Pisses people off and we have to work with them not to upset them.” Unquote. So, the facts were correct, but the narrative is making some senior maritime sector figures and their represented entities uneasy and conversations difficult? Good.

Meantime, the individual sending the message was uncomfortable (in their leading role ultimately supporting seafarers), because they were apparently being got at. Really? In comparison, what about the Indian seafarer paying for his hotel in Tunis out of his own pocket without company support having been abandoned and not able to get home to protect his family?

Next. Quote. “Also seafarers are reading that and thing [think] that it is all doom and gloom. I am asking for bad examples and getting absollutely [sic] nothing. All seems to be working ok.” Unquote. So, a leading maritime industry figure cannot get hold of any ‘bad’ examples through the management chains because the issue is: a) not an issue and a made-up story; or b) is being filtered and watered down by the corporate management chain; or c) means there is a failure by industry representatives to have their finger on the ‘heart-beat’ of front-end suffering.

EVIDENCE & TRANSPARENCY

By way of evidence of ‘bad examples’, below are some of the statements and information sent by seafarers who have contacted Human Rights at Sea, some in fear of their jobs and black-listing should they speak out. It should be noted that welfare organisations and unions must be in receipt of the same, though many times more.

  • [Fear of retribution] “I cannot disclose the company or ship name. I don’t know what action will be taken against me…they could have arranged sign off but they did not. Now there is no way to go home.”
  • “Sir. Many of us completed our tenure but can’t go home due to lock down situation worldwide and in [our]home country. Moreover we are being sent for [to] highly affected EU countries. Panic is there onboard as well as at home. In this severe situation we would like to be with our families to support them. Company appreciated us for keeping up supply chain worldwide but who is going to take care of us and our family??”
  • “I am stranded in Hotel since 4th March on Tunisia and you aware I came to join ship.  I don’t know whether I will be able to join ship or come back to India which is ban till 14th April.  How long will I pay hotel bills.  I have to pay loan EMi and feed family.  Company has not supported in this crisis as my contract is valid from day I  join the ship. Tunisia is ban till 4th April and may delay further.  I don’t understand how long will seafarer will stay without salary and support families if no income.”
  • “It’s not much fun being on a ship right now.  There’s a serious lack of, one might say ‘essence’ among the crew. Lot of frightened people. Lot of people very worried about family,  most of the offices are closed so logistic comes are a clusterfuck. This is a chance for the DPAs to shine. But so far nothing. I’d say 70% of the world’s fleet is approaching skeleton crew. Sure, it’s a global nightmare but it’s not what a lot of these signed for. Lots of folk expected their companies to look after them. Seems the demands on the fleet is getting greater with less logistic support less crew on board and less aggressive support. Having said that I can’t gripe my gang are all OK. Home and aboard, we’ve got some good banter going. Those guys in the article though that’s happened a lot and still happening. Really shitty.”
  • “Internet connections shipboard. There’s usually a system for crew to have access to a messaging service through Wi-Fi evergreen use Whats app I think we use messenger or Viber I’m not sure.  You are given or buy a data allowance. And can message whenever you like providing connection is good.  If that connection goes down the crew have little or no contact with family at home because if you read the WHO special requirements for ports it’s becoming more and more difficult to get local SIM cards.”
  • “Sign off cancelled as travel restrictions imposed. Now crew change is impossible as no government will lift travel restrictions due to impact of coronavirus.”
  • “This is really bad by the companies…we have not signed contract for this…we should have the say.”
  • “I have a 3 months contract now I am already over 4months on board , with most of the counties shutting down borders it looks [like we] Would be on board for a few months at least and even if can get off from the vessel might get stuck in some airport. Though the flights are shut but the ships are still going to corona infected areas like Spain and Italy, with insufficient disinfectants sanitisers and medical equipment.”
  • “Only fear is in case someone gets corona on board it’s a closed environment would get transmitted to all on board . And in such a case for sure no country will allow the vessel in its ports. For now we are just checking daily temperature of all crew and people coming on board.”
  • “As of now there is no communication from the office regarding my salary not being paid. What do we do?”
  • “Because of heavy [expensive] port charges they won’t take us to [an] Indian port. But we are very worried about family because they need us bad.”
  • “Sir, is there any possibility on policy changes for seafarers to get back to their family? It is very concerning.”
  • “I had a new born baby after my joining here. I have to see him.”

NEWS SUPPRESSION?

Let us be in no doubt that this pandemic is deadly. It is a threat to our way of living and our humanity. It will change the way we think, the way we act and how we engage with those around us. The greatest irony being that a virus, which ranges in size from about 20 to 400 nanometres in diameter, is now starting to re-establish a new working order in our globalised world.

We are rightly hearing the positive and often stoic narratives of those seafarers who are staying onboard, keeping calm and carrying on, maintaining global supply lines and remaining at sea for the global common good. We sincerely thank them.

But what we are not hearing on any scale from within the maritime sector and some organisations, are the real details of the alternative reality and of the uncomfortable stories reflecting the consequences of those not fortunate enough to have support of the big commercial companies who are pushing this stoic messaging. Without this, we have an incomplete and less-than-transparent picture of what is occurring.

Undeniably, facts save lives and reduce suffering, but currently a potential fear of the facts is stymieing wider public awareness and therefore support to seafarers and their families, as well as highlighting need for critical support to front-line welfare organisations.

Questions must now be asked of whether is there a deliberate suppression of the facts and ground-truth, particularly for those seafarers who are not being currently employed but are in the crew management system, careless under-reporting, or just a convenient avoidance of the inconvenient truth behind the ongoing suffering of seafarers and their families during the COVID-19 crisis?

This is not a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ perspective, but the position from the other side of the commercial-civil society paradigm, like it or not.

It is now time to tell the whole truth, including the good, the bad and the ugly of the ramifications of COVID-19 on the silent heroes who will keep us supplied and alive in this unprecedented global crisis.”

David Hammond Esq. is the CEO and founder of the UK-registered independent charitable NGO, Human Rights at Sea. A former British Royal Navy Seaman Officer he variously worked at sea before transferring to the Royal Marine Commandos where he commanded, flew reconnaissance helicopters, before becoming the first in-house criminal-trained Barrister (Counsel) in the Royal Marines. Working around the world in difficult environments and latterly with a dedicated civil society and international humanitarian focus, he established the charity in 2014 to challenge and address issues of abuse at sea.

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