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Coronavirus makes 'modern slaves' of ship crews, UN told

September 25, 2020

Long trapped on ships by COVID-19 travel curbs, 400,000 seafarers are desperate for crew changes, a special UN meeting has been told. The global ITF union warns that fatigue could lead to accidents and oil spills.

Members of Indonesia's National Search And Rescue Agency (BASARNAS) assist health quarantine officers
Image: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

Shipping sector unions and executives, joined by UN chief Antonia Guterres, on Thursday urged governments hesitant over coronavirus risks to grant freer "essential" travel to crews needing to visit home, rest up and seek fresh assignments.

Stuck on board since early 2020 due to interlinked issues such as coronavirus-induced trade slowdowns, many had been left feeling like "second-class citizens," Captain Hedi Marzougui told a video conference on the fringe of the UN General Assembly, coinciding with World Maritime Day.

"Not knowing when or if we would be returning home [had] put severe mental strain on my crew and myself," said the Tunisian-born captain, whose family lives in Florida.

The UN's International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates that 60,000 cargo ships maintain at least 80% of global trade at sea. Handling all that normally are some 2 million merchant seafarers, often working 12 hour shifts.

In July, the IMO described the pandemic-induced situation as a "humanitarian crisis" with at least 300,000 mariners stuck on board, unable to benefit from crew changes. 

And, maritime welfare charities warned of severe mental health risks.

Situation 'escalating'

During Thursday's remote-link conference, Stephen Cotton, secretary general of the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) said some crews had become "forced labor."

The situation was "escalating" and "nearly 400,000 seafarers are now way beyond their tour of duty," said Cotton, saying it risked turning into a form of "modern slavery."

Some had been on board "for longer than a year" and their fatigue posed added risks of accidents, such as oil spills and deaths at sea, he said.

ITF seafarers' chair David Heindel added that tempers were "rightly running high."

'Red tape and bureaucracy'

Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), blamed "red tape and bureaucracy" for crew-change delays.

Border guards and local port officials in some countries, said Platten, were being overzealous in blocking seafarers from even coming ashore.

In May, the ICS and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said 100,000 merchant seafarers needed to swap out monthly "to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations protecting safety, health and welfare."

But global coronavirus travel restrictions had left flights to repatriate or relocate marine personnel "unavailable."

While cruise companies in recent months chartered flights to get their seafarers home, many crews on merchant vessels have even had to extend contracts, say experts. 

Some had been at sea for over 17 months consecutively, noted the website Marine Insight on Thursday, 

Others, unemployed, waiting

ITF chief Cotton accused world governments of allowing the crew change crisis to "deepen" — instead of striving for practical solutions — six months into the coronavirus pandemic.

Another 400,000 seafarers were waiting at home, unemployed, unable to replace their colleagues onboard, he said.

ipj/rt (AP, Reuters)

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