Aside from bad news from home, nothing casts a shadow over a seafarer more than having your pay-off cancelled. Most will have suffered it at least once. My worst was my relief’s child being hospitalised just before he left for the airport. Fortunately the child recovered, as indeed did I, having packed my bag the night before arrival in Japan only to unpack it again the following day. It was a long trip back to the Persian Gulf, and my shipmates did the wise thing and steered clear of my foul and morose mood for the intervening weeks while the Old Man turned a blind eye to my bar bill.
Compared to the current situation at sea, that was a walk in the park. The global Covid-19 outbreak has hit seafarers hard. In order to keep ships moving, an estimated 100,000 seafarers need repatriating every month. An estimated 400,000 are now overdue for relief, a situation which is now a matter of considerable angst for the owners and shippers.
Industrial action by seafarers has never been a viable threat. In the UK, during periods of workforce discontent in the 1970s, a call for seafarers to strike usually only meant a few ferries parked up for short periods. The idea of a crew of merchantman downing tools on the far side of the world was as laughable as it was impractical. The crew still needed to eat, the engine still needed to produce power, deck watches needed to be kept, maintenance continued, drills run and moorings tended. So, who actually stops work then? That is of course, if the port operator would have tolerated it anyway. Port managers quite like ships not to overstay their time alongside their busy berths, so the Master would have a visit from local law enforcement agents, some heavily armed of course, who would have found persuasive language to sling him off the berth. Nonetheless, global seafarers unions who have been lobbying hard for action have run out of patience. An agreement was reached in May for a month’s grace allowing emergency extensions to labour conventions governing seafarers’ contracts. That period ends next Tuesday, on June 16th. Many crews have now worked several months beyond their contracts, exceeding regulatory limits. Managers, owners, unions and Captains are now sounded the alarm over safety. Industrial action as a bargaining tool has never been very effective for seafarers, but fatigue is another matter altogether.
The international shipping industry has warned of a real threat this poses to global trade. In the UK, 95% of import and export freight moves by sea. Even the ubiquitous Amazon delivery relies on the goods being there in the first place. And we are far from self-sufficient on fuel and food.
We highlighted the case of an Indian tanker Captain a few weeks ago, who decided to break his passage from Brazil to Singapore half way across the Indian ocean, and head for home. Last week, the Master of a German-owned tanker refused to sail. His crew had simply had enough.
Industry bodies are voicing their concerns now. Guy Platten, Secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping has described the situation as a “ticking time-bomb. The longer this issue goes on, the greater risk to the supply chain.”
The problem has multiple obstacles. Some ships have had crewmembers contacting the virus, or showing symptoms. That’s an instant no-no for anyone leaving. The suspension of commercial flights increases the difficulties in moving crew around. Reliefs arriving in any country face uncertain quarantine rules. There’s nothing to be gained from arriving and being sent to an airport hotel for 14 days if the ship is due to sail on the morning tide.
There are calls for governments to create safe corridors that would allow free movement of some 1.5 million seafarers to keep trade moving. These include designating seafarers as key workers who can travel without restrictions, the creation of safe transit zones in airports and accepting seafarer’s documents in lieu of visas.
Some governments, such as the Netherlands and in the last few days, Singapore have done the right thing and acted quickly. Bridgetown, Barbados has become a port of salvation for thousands of cruise line crews. Many ships are milling around off Miami and the Bahamas, waiting for the cruise business to open again – some say as early as July. Crews are being transferred between ships offshore, then head down to Barbados to offload where charter flights await. Several have even taken the crews home. ADVENTURE OF THE SEAS did a tour of the Caribbean, landing nationals on their home turf. CELEBRITY INFINITY and ANTHEM OF THE SEAS made the long haul to Mumbai, EMPRESS OF THE SEAS and MAJESTY OF THE SEAS brought Brits and Europeans home while QUANTUM OF THE SEAS made the long haul to Manila.
Great news for the lucky few, but still a drop in the ocean. The powerful International Transport Workers’ Federation have stated that after June 16th, the labour agreement could no longer be extended. “We won’t tell seafarers they have to stay on board. If they want off, we will assist them getting off.” Legally, eleven months is the limit. Some are entering their sixteenth month.
IFSMA, the International Federation of Ship Masters has stated publicly in uncharacteristically militant language that “some of these people are dangerously tired” and has written an open letter to Captains warning them they could be found criminally culpable if they sailed a vessel where concerns of fatigue had been raised.
As much of the world seems to be easing up, the shipping industry’s problems are deteriorating and may be about to get worse.
With hindsight, twenty-six extra days from Yokohama to Jebel Ali really was a minor inconvenience.