Most of us are well acquainted with social distancing, staying and working from home. Many countries have implemented varying degrees of stay-home policies to reduce the spread of the virus. Seafarers on board ships have it quite differently. While our interactions have been kept to our immediate family members, seafarers work and live on a self-contained vessel across months interacting with only their ship-mates.
Safe at sea
To find out more about life on board a ship during the time of COVID-19, SeaVoices interviewed Felix Foo a 3rd Officer who is currently serving his duties in European waters. Fortunately for Felix, he signed on his ship on 27th January 2020, before many countries implemented border lockdowns. He told SeaVoices, “we have all been sailing together since the start of this pandemic, so we know we are all unaffected.”
With that said, company directives for the ship have been erring on the side of caution. As Felix’s vessel plies through ports in Europe with some of the countries being badly affected by COVID-19, the ship is constantly sanitised throughout the voyage.
As a 3rd officer on board the ship, Felix holds responsibilities during this period to ensure the safety of crew on board. On top of his regular duties, he has been tasked to ensure that sanitary supplies such as hand sanitisers, masks and gloves are readily available at common areas on the ship. Updating the crew is also part of his job, and he does that by displaying the latest company circulars in common areas for his colleagues to read.
The ship might be a safer place when out at sea, but the risk is raised when the ship docks and is exposed to shore personnel. Any contamination from an outsider from the port will introduce a danger to crew members who work and live together. Knowing this, the company and captain have put strict measures on shore personnel that board the ship and come in contact with the crew.
Some of these measures include temperature taking, escorting of pilots along the exterior deck of the ship to the bridge, and having only essential crew to be present. When on board, movement of shore personnel is also restricted to certain areas to reduce any potential contamination by surface contact. Safe distancing is also a requirement when in proximity with these workers, which Felix is responsible for ensuring that everyone abides by. To preserve the virus-free environment of the ship, crew members are unable to go on shore leave, and are required to remain on board even when the ship is docked.
The same threat is posed when a new crew member joins the ship. To protect the others, on signers have to serve a mandatory 14 day quarantine period in their cabins. Arrangement is also made so that those who have just signed on will fulfill their work duties without coming in contact with others.
Internal struggles out at sea
When asked if he had any concerns regarding the current challenges with crew change, he responded “I am prepared to extend (my contract) if necessary.” He explained that since it is his first contract after attaining his class 3 Certificate of Competency, “it will give me more opportunities to practise what I have learnt and become more competent.”
Seafarers are in a predicament when it comes to extension of their contracts. Many chose to sign on to earn their keep and provide for their family back at home. Therefore, there are a handful of seafarers that would be happy staying on to work and sending their wages back home to their dependents.
Still, there are others who have reached the end of their contracts and are trying to sign off, but are unable due to port restrictions at many countries. With nowhere they can go, they extend their contracts to remain on board the ship until an opportunity arises.
Felix shared that some seafarers will face an internal and mental struggle when there are matters that need their attention back at home. This can range from a loved one that is sick, or a new born child that they are anxious to return to. For these people, he said that “they are torn between staying onboard and earning money in a safe place, or going back to their love ones and risking infection on the way back.”
Felix ended by letting us in on how he has been coping mentally on the ship. “Keeping a routine helps a lot as with keeping busy. When your mind is engaged in work, you won’t have time to think about other things,” he advised.
The sacrificial workforce
According to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), the maximum service periods of seafarers on board ship should not exceed 12 months at one time. However, crew change restrictions have been in place for almost two months and many seafarers out at sea have served beyond their contractual periods with some nearing the MLC maximum service period. A recent survey issued by the Seafarers Happiness Index also revealed the deteriorating mental health of seafarers due to prolonged services on board.
As goods continue to fill the shelves of supermarkets and reach our homes to provide us with food and other necessities, let us not forget seafarers. Many have left their hometowns and made sacrifices during this period to ensure goods continue to travel across borders.
The International Maritime Organisation released a Circular Letter on 5 May to provide a framework of protocols to be implemented by member states and international organisations to ensure crew changes can be done safely and as soon as possible.
We continue to call upon countries to expedite the facilitation of crew change for the key workers of the global supply chains.
Together, we can overcome this!