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Cargo workers stranded at sea thanks to coronavirus are stressed to the breaking point

Cargo workers stranded at sea thanks to coronavirus are stressed to the breaking point
Theresa Braine Aug 03, 2020

They had to shave their heads for lack of shampoo, have teeth pulled by their captain for lack of a dentist, and have not seen their families in over a year.

Cargo ship crews are among the most essential of workers and deliver invaluable goods and services to those under coronavirus shutdowns. Without them, world commerce — and thus the supply chain — would grind to a halt.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, the union representing 30.8% of the world’s approximately 1.2 million seafaring workforce, estimates that 300,000 cargo crews — both inside and outside the union — are stranded at sea, working way past their contracts, and unable to go home.

Some have been landless for more than a year, and the strain is showing. They’ve been clamoring more loudly for relief, and some are getting suicidal, Business Insider reported Sunday.

In addition to the 300,000 people stuck at sea are another 300,000 facing financial ruin because they are unemployed, unable to enter the ships, the ITF said. Contracts usually run for four to six months, but some workers have been stranded at sea for more than a year.

These workers transport 90% of the world’s goods, according to Business Insider.

Not only have they been unable to disembark from their ships, but crew have also had spotty access to medical care. In one case, a captain for the Emma Maersk had to pull the teeth of two of his crew members.

A Maersk spokesperson did say that workers have been airlifted when their condition is serious, and said captains do have some medical training — though it was not clear whether that included dentistry.

“We are in the midst of a welfare crisis,” said Steven Jones, who founded the Mission, in a statement.

There is a cost of inaction, and there’s a need for immediate solutions, including crew changeovers onboard personal protective equipment (PPE) and “improved communication between shore and sea,” he said. “Protecting our seafarers comes first, and the industry must now come together before it is too late.”

The report showed that vessels are sailing with fewer crew, and there is more sickness onboard, along with “a pressure to keep hygiene standards at almost hospital-like levels,” the Mission said in a statement. “The demands of meeting these standards while also maintaining social distancing are relentless, and seafarers are struggling to adhere to new guidance.”

The unremitting workload and social isolation from family since the COVID-19 outbreak began “is clearly taking its toll,” the Mission’s report said. “Seafarers have reported feeling unsupported and stressed, and without respite, which is impacting work standards as well as the welfare of seafarers. Combined with the challenge of accessing medical services, the risk of an increase in incidents of self-harm and in the number of accidents is very real as stress impacts work, compromising safety at all levels.”

The ITF has even floated the idea of a strike, saying it would support its members who cease to work in protest at their conditions.