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Seafarers not taking shore leave at some ports even as COVID restrictions start to ease

Seafarers not taking shore leave at some ports even as COVID restrictions start to ease
ABC Esperance/Emily JB Smith 4 May 2022

Below the deck of a cargo ship making its way through a stormy sea, Meldin Richie Mortera was fighting for his life.

The seafarer and father of one — soon to be two — from Laguna in the Philippines, had become desperately ill shortly after the ship departed port in Indonesia.

For more than two weeks he struggled to keep down food and even breathe, while a request for a rescue helicopter was reportedly refused because the sea was too rough to negotiate a landing.

He was finally rushed to hospital after his ship arrived at port in Newcastle where he said doctors told him he had a blood infection and a blood clot in his liver.

"I almost died," he said, after a month in hospital.

But as terrifying as the near-death experience was, it did lead him to pull off a feat that has become very rare among seafarers: setting foot on dry land.

Why aren't seafarers coming to shore?

Many seafarers are struggling to take temporary shore leave while at some ports, despite it being a key entitlement set out in the Maritime Labour Convention, to which Australia is a signatory.

Ship captains, operators, and managers may still deem it too risky, even as COVID restrictions ease and governments start to welcome vaccinated, RAT-tested crews down the gangplank.

Shipping Australia CEO Melwyn Noronha said that was because seafarers could catch the virus while on shore and bring it back to the ship.

"If [seafarers] do get the virus and come on board then the next port could be an issue," he said.

A WA Department of Health spokesman said seafarers were allowed shore leave providing they met COVID requirements for maritime crew and were vaccinated, which Mr Noronha said 78 per cent of the world's seafarers were.

But Mission to Seafarers volunteer Fred Lochowicz said none had visited him at his Esperance base since before the pandemic broke out.

"The last two years and two months there's been no seafarers ashore here and we miss them," he said.

Between January and April 2018 — pre-COVID — 98,386 Maritime Crew visas, which allow seafarers to move across Australia’s international border and usually last three years, were granted by the Department of Home Affairs.

That fell to 77,917 during the same period last year.

This year, 85,965 have been issued.

But while visas may be in place, it is believed no shipping agents have yet contacted the Esperance Port to arrange visitor passes for crew since the onset of the pandemic, likely due to continuing COVID cases in the town.

'Scared of the seafarer'

Mr Mortera may have survived his life-threatening illness, but he remained anxious.

After spending a month in hospital, his original ship was long gone and he needed another contract to support his family, particularly as his wife was pregnant with their second child.

He said his pay while waiting for a contract was about US$700 a month — not nearly enough to cover his bills.

"I really need to go back to the ship to work," he said.

It followed a horror few years, where at the height of the pandemic Mr Mortera was confined to his ship for an entire nine-month contract and survived by playing table tennis to "divert loneliness".

Mission to Seafarers Australia and PNG regional director Garry Dodd said it had been a tough time for many seafarers and hoped communities would be welcoming once more started taking shore leave.

"One of the sadnesses that we are seeing is that there are times when individual communities are scared of the seafarer and think that maybe the seafarer will bring COVID into their community," he said.

He urged the public to put themselves in seafarers' shoes.

"There are hundreds of thousands of seafarers who haven't touched dry land for all of their contract," he said.

"If they've had a back-to-back contract that may be for two or two and a half years."

Mr Noronha also acknowledged the huge strain the world's seafarers had been under and believed the global shipping industry should commission a debrief to assess how it could do better by seafarers in a future pandemic.

"They are the innocent player in this, they have been keeping our supply chains going right through the pandemic, they have been working tirelessly," he said.

"I think it's important to have a debrief … [looking] at what was done well, and what could be done better for seafarers."