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Prisoners at sea: The unsung heroes moving the world

Prisoners at sea: The unsung heroes moving the world
•Aug 8, 2020

The outbreak of Coronavirus, has greatly disrupted the life across the globe. However, the crew of merchant ships, known as seafarers, are tirelessly working to keeping the world and global economy moving, as more than eighty percent of the global trade is made by sea.
However, lockdowns imposed by the various countries made the seafarers prisoners on the ship. They are now stranded on their own ship, unable to go back home after finishing their contract.

Today, from the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the gadgets we use, to the medical supplies we utilize, almost everything is brought to us through ships. Despite the crucial role the shipping industry plays in maintaining the global economy, very few people have any clue about this industry, and the professionals who operate, manage, and keep the wheels of world economy oiled and rolling steadily.

Even, in normal circumstances, seafaring is one of the toughest jobs in the world. The long working hours, the isolation, the physical hardship, sleep disruptions due to round the hour working shift, all of these takes a toll on the seafarers, who stay away from their loved ones for months. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, seafarers cannot leave their ship to go ashore, even for a few hours, and they have close to no human contact outside of the ship’s crew.

Sailors live and work on board the ship, waiting for the day when they could disembark from the ship after completing their contract, and go back home. However, COVID 19 has meant that, that day keep getting pushed back. Even when they reach the end of their contract, many seafarers cannot be replaced, and yet the ships need to be permanently manned. So, if they can’t be replaced, well, they need to carry on keep working.

Unfortunately, the number of ports allowing crew changes is extremely less. Redirecting ships to the few ports where crew change is possible, is the only solution in a small number of cases. When it is possible, most shipping companies say they are willing to pay for the extra cost. But that otherwise, their hands are tied due to restrictions put in place by most of the countries. Even when a port allows the crew change, it is not easy to carry out these because of delays in getting visa, non-availability of flights, and other administrative constraints.

About 250,000 seafarers are presently stranded at sea in need of replacement crew, and roughly the same amount of crew, are stuck on shore, waiting to get back to work, and earn their living. In spite of the important role being played by the seafarers, their plight has not dominated headlines of the press, or not discussed on social media. They're out of sight and out of mind, and yet, they're absolutely essential for keeping the world moving. In some ways, they’ve been the forgotten army of people.

Many of these seafarers, have completed their tours of duty more than four months ago. But, with contracts extended exceptionally because of the current crisis, many are now reported to be experiencing mental health issues, and physical exhaustion, which is reducing their ability to safely carry out their duties

International shipping organizations, trade unions, and shipping companies are urging governments of countries to recognize merchant ship crews as essential workers, and allow them to travel and carry out crew changes. They are warning that covid-19 restrictions could lead to a “humanitarian crisis”, as seafarers’ mental health and performance worsen in the face of increasing fatigue, in a profession, which already has a high prevalence of accidents, depression and suicide pre-pandemic.

The challenge now is to get a very strong message to governments. They’ve got to recognize the sacrifice seafarers are making for our global society. Unless governments facilitate crew changes, it is extremely likely that one day the seafarers shall take a more dramatic action, and that is STOP WORKING.

Please share this video with as many people as you can, to raise awareness on the plight of our seafarers.