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Countries must act now to award seafarers key worker status

Following United Nations resolutions to recognise seafarers as key workers, governments need to respond now given the impact of the backdrop of the past year on their lives

The secretary-general of The Mission to Seafarers charity calls for an immediate international response to the UN and International Labour Organisation resolutions to recognise seafarers as key workers. If countries do not respond now, it could be too late, he writes

SINCE the beginning of the year, many organisations, shipping companies and industry bodies have campaigned for the crew change crisis to be remedied. While many recognise the healthcare workers on the front line, few have highlighted the essential work of seafarers transporting personal protective equipment, medical equipment, food and energy supplies around the world, trapped on board vessels away from their families, isolated and often unable to contact loved ones.

In the past week, two key intergovernmental organisations have called on their member states to designate seafarers as key workers. The first was a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, calling for all countries to immediately implement measures to facilitate crew changes, to ensure access to medical care for all maritime personnel and to designate seafarers as key workers.

Swiftly following the first announcement, the International Labour Organisation echoed this resolution, recognising the crucial role that international shipping and seafarers play in maintaining global supply chains, delivering 90% of goods, and the essential need to support and protect these key workers.

It is welcome to see this call for nation states to act. It is now vital that all governments work with shipping’s international bodies and companies to co-ordinate efforts in bringing about radical and lasting change. There are solutions. We applaud those governments who have taken firm action in support of seafarers. However, others have been slow to act, however good their intentions.

At The Mission to Seafarers, we have witnessed first-hand what impact bureaucratic indecision over the past few months has meant for seafarers and their families. Our front-line welfare teams have spoken of a mental health epidemic paralleling the pandemic. Uncertainty, anxiety about family back home and exhaustion have created very significant stress levels.

With deep uncertainty about when crew change can take place, many have experienced that sense of losing control over your own future which can be so debilitating. One seafarer suffering acute distress and suicidal feelings told us that he felt that there was “no tomorrow and without tomorrow there was no hope”.

We are now 10 months into this crisis and, while there has been some improvement, full resolution is a long way off and hundreds of thousands of seafarers are still working beyond their contract ends. We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis which will  worsen if governments do not work together.

The Mission to Seafarers has a network of port chaplains in 200 ports across 50 countries. Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to provide port welfare services, and have only stopped when required by national lockdown or other authority. My colleagues have been safely ship visiting and counselling seafarers suffering from the tiring effects of extended contracts.

Where shore leave has been denied, they have provided on board WiFi units to enable contact with home; they have shopped for seafarers and sourced life sustaining medication such as insulin and antiretroviral drugs for seafarers living with diabetes and HIV when their stocks have run low.

Our port based work has been complemented by our new digital chaplaincy service, which offers seafarers the chance to speak to a chaplain 24/7 and seek advice and support. The team — which has representatives from all the major faith-based societies — has dealt with more than 1,500 coronavirus-related calls and responded to more than 500 direct requests for assistance.

Teams have been consoling seafarers working on extended contracts and desperate to go home. Others have involved counselling a bereaved mother whose seafarer son died with coronavirus. We also assisted an Indian crew abandoned in Vietnam. Relying on our global network, our chaplain in Mumbai was able to work with the company and the Indian High Commission to resolve the issue and throughout was able to support the crew via the chat service. This truly is a global emergency.

In Manila, we were asked by the government to help with transporting seafarers who had finished their mandatory quarantine. For the many seafarers living in the city’s overcrowded dormitories, we have been providing food and water.

Tuticorin, in Southern India, has a large seafaring population. As the pandemic continued to wreak havoc across the world, the families of seafarers in the area found themselves suffering from severe food shortages. The Mission team has provided regular supplies of food and hand sanitiser, and our sewing clubs have been making face coverings for local communities. More than 700 families have benefitted from the supplies and this work continues. 

In a typical year, our chaplains conduct more than 60,000 welfare visits to seafarers on board their ships, providing practical assistance, such as access to the internet and transportation services, along with pastoral counselling and other forms of assistance. 2020 is anything but typical and 2021 will be worse if nothing changes.

The UN and ILO resolutions have created much-needed momentum for governments to facilitate safe crew changes. We welcome this pressure on all countries to recognise the crucial role that our 2m seafarers play in transporting food, medicine, energy supplies and other essential cargo at the height of a pandemic. However, it is now down to these governments to act by classifying these vital and heroic seafarers as key workers.

I know many of you will share my deep concern over the treatment of our seafarers. The decision over key worker status may not be ours to make, but we are not powerless. We can all use our voice and influence to deliver this message to our governments: Please support these latest calls made by the UN and the ILO so that seafarers get the support and protection they deserve. We urge you to act now.

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