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'Mental health crisis' of cargo ship workers stuck at sea

'Mental health crisis' of cargo ship workers stuck at sea
Amanda Cropp Jul 15 2020

Seafarer welfare groups warn of a growing mental health crisis on cargo ships where crews have gone months without setting foot ashore.

A distressed crewman who had not been home for nine months last week made a radio call on the emergency channel from a vessel anchored off Port Chalmers, and arrangements were made to repatriate him to Europe.

Mission to Seafarers chaplains claim tough Covid-19 restrictions denying crews shore leave are inhumane and violate the Maritime Labour Convention which New Zealand is a signatory to.

The NZ Maritime Pilots Association is also concerned that stressed crews could be a safety hazard.

In June the Government increased the isolation period required for crews on foreign vessels.

Those at sea for at least 28 days can disembark, provided they have no symptoms.

Foreign crew who have self-isolated for 14 days within New Zealand territorial waters are also allowed ashore, but shipping agents say many vessels are not here long enough to meet those rules, and some companies have a blanket ban on shore leave for fear of “importing” infection.

Mission to Seafarers chair Rev John McLister said the lack of shore leave on top of crew contracts being extended by months as a result of Covid-19 border closures was a real worry.

“One captain said he had fights on his ship which he had never had before.

“A captain said our mental health isn’t just declining, it has crashed.

“These are the people who have kept New Zealand’s economy going and our general lives going, from the coffee we sip, to the cars we drive and the TVs we watch.”

Many ships visiting New Zealand do not have Wi-Fi on board and seafarer welfare groups take mobile Wi-Fi units to berthed vessels so sailors can contact their families.

They are also providing on-line counselling to crew and delivering basics such as toiletries, razors and toothpaste to those unable to disembark to go shopping.

Wellington Mission to Seafarers chaplain Lance Lukin said agencies like his were financially stretched, and they had sought $700,000 from the Government to help pay for their work and the provision of services such as Wi-Fi.

Lukin said there had not been a single case of a crew member being diagnosed with Covid in New Zealand, and the requirements were discriminatory when compared with the rules for air crew.

Pilots and cabin attendants returning from high-risk layovers are required to self-isolate, have a Covid-19 test on day 2 after their arrival in New Zealand, and continue to self-isolate until the results of that test have been returned.

”Most airline crew are white, shipping crew are mostly people of colour and they’re being told, you can’t touch New Zealand soil because you may bring Covid in,” said Lukin.

”All they want to do is get off, get some fresh air, see some trees and touch some grass.”

But Health Mister Chris Hipkins said shore leave restrictions were a necessary precaution and no changes were planned at this point.

“That could change as we learn more. The different nature of air and sea travel naturally means there are different requirements between air and maritime crew.

“I understand that may cause some distress for crew who have been at sea for lengthy periods and I do not take their situation lightly. If there was a better way right now we would be doing it.”

McLister said stress was a safety issue and the captain of a vessel that regularly visits New Zealand blamed it for a serious injury on board his ship.

“A young cadet was not concentrating because his Mum was dying of Covid-19 in a hospital in India, and he lost two of his fingers. They were coming out of Sydney and they had to turn back and get a helicopter to pick him up.”

Port of Otago general manager marine and infrastructure Sean Bolt confirmed the incident with the seafarer who made the call on the channel normally reserved for Mayday and emergency calls, and he said there were signs of stress among crews.

“There are some behaviours we think are not quite normal, so I think it’s fair to say it’s something we’re going to be watching very, very closely.”Industry sources say about 90 cargo vessels currently on the New Zealand coast would have close to 1800 crew, and normally between 100 and 150 crew would be exchanged each week.

A system for crew changes now underway means they can be transported directly from an incoming flight to their ship without having to go into managed isolation.

Transport minister Phil Twyford said a working party of Government, port, union, operator and welfare agencies was urgently looking at ways to support seafarers, manage the maritime border and deal with issues around crew changes.

New Zealand was working to ensure it remained compliant with the Maritime Labour Convention and this was a challenge governments worldwide were experiencing in light of the unprecedented Covid-19 situation, Twyford said.