“The cancer of the shipping industry”: abandoned seafarers and ships stuck at sea for two years

    24 Jul 2021

    As many as 200,000 seafarers have been left stranded at sea during the pandemic as shipping companies turn a blind eye, Al Jazeera reports.

    Akash Kumar was excited when he boarded his first ship as a seafarer, a bulk carrier called the Ula.

    “That time, it was a good feeling … a dream come true. I joined this merchant navy because I love to explore other places, other countries,” he says.

    The 25-year-old Indian seafarer was drawn to the job by the promise of high wages and a ticket to see the world. But his first glimpse of prosperity soon turned into his last moments of freedom.

    Soon after Akash joined the Ula in February 2019, departing from Messaieed in Qatar, there were shortages of provisions, fuel, oil, and water. In September that year, the ship had an electricity black-out for 19 days.

    When it finally docked in Kuwait in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spread, and the country went into lockdown.

    While they waited at the port, the owner of the Ula, Qatar-based Aswan Trading and Contracting, said it had no funds to support the ship. Then the owner stopped paying the crew and cut contact.

    The Ula’s 19-person crew were told they had to wait until the ship’s cargo of clinker, a stony residue, was discharged before they could leave. Weeks stretched into months.

    Some of the crew, like Akash, had spent more than two years on the ship.

    “Sometimes I’m crying in my cabin because last year I couldn’t attend my cousin’s marriage, which was very close to me. And many of the occasions have been done at my home, but I … couldn’t attend them,” reflects Akash.

    “If it weren’t for the pandemic, we would have been at home [months earlier],” says 47-year-old Bhanu Shankar Panda, Ula’s third engineer. The Indian seafarer has been on the ship since October 2019 and says it is the 19th ship he has worked on.

    ‘Antiquated, feudal system’

    The number of seafarers left abandoned on their vessels has risen during the pandemic. Under the Maritime Labour Convention, seafarers are deemed to have been abandoned if their shipowner cuts contact or leaves the ship without maintenance or support and the crew without pay and repatriation.

    It has been described as “the cancer of the shipping industry” by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

    In addition to this, up to 200,000 seafarers are still stranded at sea as of June 2021, according to the International Labor Organization, unable to get home because of closed borders and quarantine measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “We still have an incredible amount of skulduggery going on, on the high seas,” says Matt Purcell, an inspector from the Federation.

    Purcell says shipping companies hold massive power over their employees, controlling their finances, schedules, and when they can leave the ship. He describes it as an “antiquated, feudal system.”

    “For centuries, it’s been one of the worst regulated industries in the world because of out of sight, out of mind,” he says.

    Banned ships. “No sanitary facilities on board”

    The Ula owner, Aswan Trading and Contracting, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

    The chairman of the company, Nasser Hamed al-Nuaimi, is wanted by Qatari authorities, and the company has been blacklisted.

    Al Jazeera has evidence that suggests another company, Turkey-based Aswan Shipping Denizcilik, was managing the Ula. However, the company has denied any relation to the ship and Aswan Trading and Contracting.

    Aswan Shipping Denizcilik also operates two more ships – the Maryam and the Movers 3, recently detained off the Australian coastline.

    The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) reported that the Maryam – whose 23 crew members come from Turkey, India, and Georgia, among other countries – was unseaworthy. It had no electricity, no running water, no sanitary facilities on board, and problems with its safety equipment.

    Its sister ship, the Movers 3, also had no running water. It had enough potable water to last its 22 crew members less than three days at one point in detention.

    “Disenfranchised [by] the operator’s continued reluctance to meet its most basic obligations to maintain its ships and provide decent working and living conditions for crew, roughly half of Maryam’s original crew demanded repatriation,” said Allan Schwartz, AMSA’s executive director of operations.

    “Over the last few months AMSA and other parties involved in this situation have had to drag Aswan Shipping to the table to resolve the systemic failures on its ships,” he added.

    Ten of the original crew of the Maryam have now been replaced by new crew members.

    The ship has been banned from Australian waters for 36 months, the most extended ban ever issued by the authority, and Movers 3 for 18 months.

    ‘Treated worse than animals’

    Back in Kuwait, the crew members of the Ula were finally released from the ship on June 4, 2021, after they discharged its cargo.

    The crew members claim they are still owed more than $410,000 in wages.

    To provide for their families, many have taken out loans that will be difficult for them to repay.

    “I have promised the moneylender that once in India, I will return (the) money … How will I be answerable to that money lender?” says Bhanu Shankar Panda, the ship’s third engineer.

    “We’re treated worse than animals. We are being thrown a piece of bread to eat and moving the ship. We are beggars now.”

    Stranded and shattered seafarers threaten global supply lines

    “I’ve seen grown men cry,” says Captain Tejinder Singh, who hasn’t set foot on dry land in more than seven months and isn’t sure when he’ll go home.

    “We are forgotten and taken for granted,” he says of the plight facing tens of thousands of seafarers like him, stranded at sea as the Delta variant of the coronavirus wreaks havoc onshore.

    “People don’t know how their supermarkets are stocked up,” Reuters states.

    Singh and most of his 20-strong crew have crisscrossed the globe on an exhausting odyssey: from India to the United States and China, where they were stuck off the congested coast for weeks waiting to unload cargo. He was speaking to Reuters from the Pacific Ocean as his ship now heads to Australia.

    They are among about 100,000 seafarers stranded at sea beyond their regular stints of typically 3-9 months, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), many without even a day’s break on land. Another 100,000 are stuck on shore, unable to board the ships they need to earn a living on.

    The Delta variant devastating parts of Asia – home to many of the world’s 1.7 million commercial seafarers – has prompted many nations to cut off land access to visiting crews, in some cases even for medical treatment. Just 2.5% of seafarers – one in every 40 – have been vaccinated, the ICS estimates.

    The United Nations describes the situation as a humanitarian crisis at sea and says governments should class seafarers as essential workers. Given ships transport around 90% of the world’s trade, the deepening crisis also poses a significant threat to the supply chains we rely on for everything from oil and iron to food and electronics.

    Bulk carrier master Singh, from northern India, is not optimistic of going ashore anytime soon; his last stint at sea lasted 11 months. He said his crew of Indians and Filipinos lived out of cabins measuring about 15ft by 6ft.

    “Being at sea for a very long time is tough,” he says, adding that he had heard reports of seafarers killing themselves on other ships.

    “The most difficult question to answer is when kids ask, ‘Papa when you are coming home?’,” he said from his vessel, which was recently carrying coal.

    India and the Philippines, both reeling from vicious waves of COVID-19, account for more than a third of the world’s commercial seafarers, said Guy Platten, secretary-general of the ICS, representing over 80% of the world’s merchant fleet.

    “We are seriously disturbed that a second global crew change crisis is looming large on the horizon,” he told Reuters, referring to a months-long stretch in 2020 when 200,000 seafarers on ships were unable to be relieved.

    People are desperate

    In a snapshot of the situation, this month almost 9% of merchant sailors have been stuck aboard their ships beyond their contracts’ expiry, up from just over 7% in May, according to data compiled by the Global Maritime Forum non-profit group from 10 ship managers together responsible for over 90,000 seafarers.

    The maximum allowed contract length is 11 months, as stipulated by a U.N. seafaring convention.

    In regular times, around 50,000 seafarers rotate on, and 50,000 rotate off ships per month on average, but the numbers are now a fraction of that, according to industry players, though there are no precise figures.

    The new crew crisis stems from restrictions imposed by major maritime nations across Asia, including South Korea, Taiwan, and China, which are home to many of the world’s busiest container ports. Requirements range from mandatory testing for crews who come from or have visited certain countries, to outright bans on crew changes and berthing operations.

    “Asia really is struggling, and the only countries you can go about routine crew changes to some extent are Japan and Singapore,” said Rajesh Unni, chief executive of Synergy Marine Group, a leading ship manager responsible for 14,000 seafarers.

    “The issue is that we have one set of people who desperately want to go home because they have finished their tenure and another set of people onshore that are desperate to get back onboard to earn a living.”

    Global brands, beware

    The crisis has led to almost half of commercial seafarers either considering leaving the industry or being unsure whether they would stay or go, according to a survey by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in March.

    This suggests a looming labor crunch that would strain the world’s 50,000-strong merchant shipping fleet and threaten the integrity of global supply chains.

    A shortage of container ships carrying consumer products and logjams at ports worldwide are already rippling through the retail industry, which has seen freight rates spike to record levels, driving up prices for goods.

    “You don’t have enough crew anyway. The shipping industry was working on a very lean model,” said Mark O’Neil, CEO of leading ship manager Columbia Shipmanagement and also president of the international association for ship and crew managers.

    “But now we have all of these problems, and we have a large number of seafarers taken out of that available crewing pool,” he said, adding that the result could be vessels unable to sail.

    Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the ITF, said seafarers were being pushed to their physical and mental limits.

    “Some in the industry estimate that as many as 25% fewer seafarers are joining vessels than pre-pandemic,” he added. “We have warned that global brands need to be ready for the moment some of these tired and fatigued people finally snap.”

    Shots for seafarers

    While COVID-19 infections in India have retreated from their peak, countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia are grapple surging cases and impose new lockdowns.

    “If it gets worse, which it could well do, or if Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ukraine – other crewing centers – experience the same problem, then the wheels would really come off,” O’Neil added.

    The gravity of the assessment was echoed by Esben Poulsson, chairman of the board of the ICS.

    “In my 50 years in the maritime industry, the crew change crisis has been unprecedented in the devastating impact it has had on seafarers around the world,” he told his board in June.

    Most seafarers come from developing nations that have struggled to secure adequate vaccination supplies, leaving many in the maritime industry low on the priority list.

    Governments with significant access to vaccines have a “moral responsibility” towards seafarers, said the ICS’s Platten.

    “They must follow the lead of the U.S. and the Netherlands and vaccinate non-native crews delivering goods to their ports. They must prioritize seafarer vaccination,” he added.

    A total of 55 member countries of the U.N. shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have classed seafarers as essential workers, said David Hammond, chief executive of the charitable organization Human Rights at Sea.

    The IMO said the latest figures showed the numbers had risen to 60 member countries and two associate members.

    This classification would allow seafarers to travel more freely and return to their homes and give them better access to vaccines.

    Hammond called on all other nations to follow suit.

    “Collectively, the global shipping industry is part of a $14 trillion maritime supply chain that cannot seemingly look after its 1.7 million seafarers,” he added.

    Tags seafarers

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.