Coronavirus Nightmare at Sea for the World’s Most Essential Workers
Unable to leave their ships during the pandemic, and unable to return to their families, thousands of seafarers have been left to fend for themselves in nightmarish conditions.
“We were out of sight and out of mind,” says Second Officer Jaisal Bhati. “Everybody forgot about us (and) everyone turned a blind eye.” Behind the scenes of the coronavirus pandemic, an invisible workforce of about one million seafarers has continued to toil on bulk carriers, oil tankers, fishing vessels, cruise ships, and more. These people have crisscrossed the world, many working seven-day weeks with no holidays or even sick days delivering medicines, grain, coal, fuel—and now vaccines. “They wanted our services but they did not want us.”
Even in normal circumstances, weathering the perilous seas with limited personnel is a tough, dangerous job. A regular cargo ship might be crewed by only 20 people, each with designated duties—a ship at sea, like a plane in the air, requires constant attention so one cannot simply “down tools” and leave it unattended without risking catastrophe. On top of their daily tasks, each seafarer has emergency responsibilities for fire, health, defense, come what may. There are no separate firemen, doctors, or policemen on board. It’s just the crew, where every worker is essential and any delay is unthinkable.
And while many industries ground to a standstill as a result of the coronavirus, the global shipping industry did not. As the health crisis spread, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) agreed to allow two month-long contract extensions for seafarers in March and April and a “final implementation period” in May 2020 to avoid a disruption in international trade and make time for crew changes to happen as borders and airports started to close down. But companies and flag states took that show of grace and ran with it. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated in December that as many as “400,000 seafarers remain on board commercial vessels, unable to be repatriated and past the expiry of their contracts.”
Bhati was one of them. He found himself sheltering in place at the onset of the pandemic like so many across the globe—except that his place was a ship. He was due to return home at the end of last March after a five-month contract, but the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown beat him by two weeks—shutting down all the checkpoints that would have taken Bhati back home to India.
Many seafarers have now been on board for as long as 18 months, stranded in their workplaces having been refused repatriation, and barred from shore leave because of domestic regulations intended to curb the spread of the virus. That’s far longer than the internationally recognized limit in Regulation 2.4 (Entitlement to Leave) of the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC), ratified by 97 countries representing 91% of the global shipping industry as of 2019, which states that seafarers are not permitted to work longer than 11 consecutive months and has simply been ignored.
Like truckers and grocers, seafarers have shown up and done thankless work day in, day out, to keep society running. The difference is that many of them haven’t been allowed home. Some ships owned by smaller businesses have been completely abandoned by their owners and ghosted by their flag states—the country where a vessel is registered and whose regulations it follows. In other cases, fatigue has undoubtedly contributed to disaster: in July, the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned bulk carrier Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef on the Mauritian coast, spilling toxic fuel oil into the ocean. It turns out that ship was understaffed and at least three of the 20 crew were on extended contracts.
These nightmarish conditions are perhaps the inevitable result of the international nature of the maritime industry with its port states, flag states, owner states, and labor-exporting states built to endlessly shift blame.
Owners are responsible for taking care of their sailors and it is their obligation to navigate government bureaucracy and cover all the expenses incurred to make repatriation happen. But much of that process is dependent on cooperation from governments. Despite working across international ports, seafarers are required to have visas in order to set foot on foreign soil and thus have access to airports. Even in cases of sickness, seafarers have been denied entry because of a lack of visa. A Russian seafarer suffered a stroke on board and was denied immediate medical attention in Indonesia due to COVID-19 restrictions. In Uruguay, a Peruvian seafarer died on a Portuguese-flagged fishing ship after showing symptoms of COVID-19 on board for 30 days. He was never brought in for treatment.
Practically, it’s simply impossible to apply for visas in every single country where ports exist, so seafarers normally apply for the ones that correspond to the countries on their ship’s route. But the pandemic completely turned this upside down when governments began to close down airports and borders, canceling viable routes home in the process. Meanwhile, embassies closed down, making it impossible for seafarers to obtain last-minute visas in remaining ports. Some governments even refused to grant “key worker” status to seafarers which would have given them special visa exemptions. Granting this status is a top priority for organizations like the ITF and IMO.
“Sadly, we’ve seen an incredible inflexibility from some governments, many of whom just don’t understand our industry, and don’t want to,” says ITF Seafarers’ and Inland Navigation Section Coordinator Fabrizio Barcellona. “These governments refuse to accept that the globalized trade system that they rely on to get people their toothpaste, their shampoo, food and medical supplies, relies on these people who have been treated like a rubber band, stretched to the absolute limit and about to snap.”
Making matters even more difficult, a mandatory 14-day quarantine period put in place by governments to stop the spread of the virus demands perfectly choreographed crew changes to avoid delays that could force owners to pay expensive fees to keep their ships in port. One extra day could cost as much as $100,000—an amount most owners aren’t willing to shell out. Instead, many crewmembers waiting eagerly to disembark at open ports have had their hopes dashed when there were not quarantined crews ready to relieve them.
“When it comes to money and human life, this whole industry prefers money, over human sacrifice. Not just the industries, the countries,” says Bhati. “When it comes to trade, forget people.”
But those people are remembered as a threat to be kept at bay, with some governments rejecting entry to ships seeking medical attention for COVID-19 cases while other governments have refused to take back their own countrymen.
Barcellona says: “In instances where ships have attempted to change crew, seafarers have been blamed for spreading the virus and their ability to come ashore blocked. This is despite seafarers’ fundamental human right to go home at the completion of their contracts. To compel someone to work beyond the period they agreed to work is absolutely a matter of forced labor—it is modern slavery.”
Unsurprisingly, morale has collapsed under these conditions. An ITF survey of 1,434 seafarers taken in December and shared exclusively with The Daily Beast showed that one third of of respondents had unmet medical needs while more than four-fifths said their mental health and wellbeing had been negatively affected by the new conditions.
“It was all kinds of bad. Emotionally bogged down. Couldn’t go out,” says Bhati. “Newborn child—cannot meet them. Parents passed away—could not reach them. It was really bad, it’s still bad.”
In some cases on board, companies refused to give disability, or even sickness allowance, arguing that illnesses caught while seafarers are at sea aren’t “work-related illnesses.” Many times illnesses are blamed on the seafarers’ smoking habits, eating habits, or hygiene.
Jessie Braverman, a member of the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers, described a number of concerning issues flagged by crews during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Some ships, sparsely crewed and with crew members unable to leave, weren’t getting enough food or clean drinking water.
A Facebook post in October described a situation where seafarers were forced to eat “seaweed for breakfast and bacon from 2017” and use “water coming from an old rusted water converter.” There was another case, Braverman told The Daily Beast, where “the only thing they had to eat were onions.” That was on top of the wage theft and abuse on board that goes on largely unreported, as problems that existed before the pandemic were only further exacerbated by it.
Her particular chapter focuses on educating the local population (in her case, Portland, Oregon) on the issues happening right in their ports, but it is also part of a greater coalition that works in tandem with unions on the West Coast and advocacy organizations around the world. While they report these abuses to unions and local inspectors, there just aren’t enough of them to inspect every ship that comes in and out of port at a regular basis and even then, most seafarers are afraid to go on the record about ship abuses for fear of losing their jobs.
Being on the open seas also meant intermittent internet access. Seafarers on ships without cell service or internet connections relied on ports (or the goodwill of their ship companies) to be able to communicate with maritime organizations for any sort of relief, let alone their families. Those left without the blessing of reliable internet often missed huge milestones, tragedies in the community, and in the case of a pandemic, even letting their own families know that they wouldn’t be coming home as planned.
Prior to the pandemic, Braverman had visited a ship that imported cars and felt like a “floating parking garage.” She noted how the crew lived in small rooms, with limited amounts of food. “It’s definitely not cozy,” she said. “It seems really hard from my perspective—you’re literally living and sleeping at your workplace, on this really dangerous ship.”
Cruise ship crews, similarly confined to cramped living spaces, found that proper social-distancing was impossible as the coronavirus spread. While passengers were allowed off the ship and made to quarantine according to the coastal state’s medical standards, oftentimes, crews were not held to the same health standards. They were left to deal with a virus with minimal medical knowledge, and if they had not obtained the correct visa, were usually not even allowed to step off the ship to seek medical attention.
Pastor Marsh Drege, an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is one of many members of faith who serves in “maritime ministry.” Rooted in centuries-old stereotypical views of sailors as violent, bad-mouthing, impulsive, sinful people, maritime ministry grew with the intent of proselytizing and spreading the Christian (or Catholic) religion. Today, that’s no longer the main purpose of maritime ministry—as port chaplains in North America sign memoranda vowing not to proselytize—but their influence and presence has remained on the gangway.
“We are concerned with spirituality, but we work equally with Muslims, Jews, Christians” and others, says Drege, explaining that their main goal is to tend to the functional and individual needs of seafarers. “Our chaplains, our maritime ministers, are there to listen and counsel and pray with them.”
Now, the usual anxieties of seafarers have been made exponentially worse by the uncertainty of the pandemic. Though many felt compelled to work at the beginning of the pandemic as their form of service for the world’s greater good, the lack of transparency concerning their future on board left many distraught. While disappearances and deaths at sea often go unreported, a spate of suicides among seafarers—including six cruise workers in the month of May—demonstrates the fatal effects of a depressed and hopeless crew amid an unending crisis. Just recently, an Indian seafarer trapped aboard MSC’s bulker Anastasia off the coast of China attempted suicide after languishing on board eight months past his original contract’s expiration, and his most recent pleas to return home were refused.
“I've personally had people call me from all over the world, all times of day, just wanting to talk,” Drege says. “It has really increased during the pandemic… I talked to a seafarer almost every day in August, because they were in the Middle East, and they couldn’t get off the ship. They couldn’t go anywhere. They were basically prisoners.”
Faith-based organizations like the Seafarers International House have long worked closely with unions and advocacy groups to bring help to seafarers and when the coronavirus drastically limited the number of people interacting at ports, chaplains were often the one line of relief, bringing whatever practical items were needed to the gangway.
“Seafarers will contact [our chaplains], usually through WhatsApp, and will ask them to pick up something at a store, or they will order things on the internet to the chaplain’s home,” Drege explains. “One of our chaplains has spent $20,000 a month on just buying things, that he is just trusting the seafarers will reimburse him.”
He recalls asking one chaplain: “‘Do you ever get stiffed?” and being told “Never. It’s never happened.” That, says Drege, “really shows the trust and the relationships that happen between our chaplains and our seafarers.”
The reality of the pandemic has not only pushed Drege to find ways to support seafarers but also has helped him appreciate their situation, he said: “I’ve developed more empathy for what seafarers go through all the time—isolation, and loneliness. We all have been on lockdown, we all know now what that’s like.”
While one might assume that special consideration would be given to seafarers, since they, you know, deliver basically every imaginable thing that we need in order to live our lives, they’ve been almost completely ignored even for the most basic of needs. All the while, the entities tasked with enforcing regulations and protecting seafarers did next to nothing.
“Flag states and port states are not actually stepping up,” says Natasha Brown, the IMO’s acting head of media and communications.
One key issue is the notorious “flag of convenience” system. It’s a business practice originating from the Prohibition era in the United States, where American-owned ships registered to Panama served alcohol to American patrons on American coasts, claiming that they need only abide by the Panamanian rule of law. Though Prohibition ended, flying a flag of convenience didn’t. Instead of bypassing a ban on alcohol, it turned out that bypassing labor laws, tax requirements, and environmental codes was too lucrative to give up.
The benefits are great for flag states too. It is a steady source of income for poorer nations, giving them an “in” with wealthy corporate fleet owners. A 2014 report by UNCTAD reveals that 73 percent of the world’s fleet is “foreign flagged,” meaning the ship’s flag does not match the owner’s. Today, as many as 60 percent of ships fly flags in countries where there are no nationality or residency requirements for registration, called open registries. The practice, in effect, gives extraordinary power to shipowners, who dangle their fleet’s registration in exchange for more lax, agreeable regulation.
“Part of the problem is that the ‘Flags’ popular with shipowners do not have the political or economic influence to lobby on behalf of the ships registered to them, or the workers aboard,” says ITF Maritime Coordinator Jacqueline Smith. “Major Flag states generate substantial profits from their registers, but don’t have the strength or enforcement mechanisms required to do their job when violations occur.”
While people like Bhati had their fates in the hands of neglectful governments and inconvenienced ship companies, flag states like Panama and Liberia had no issue allowing contract extensions—despite the expressed cap of continuous labor on board at 11 months—to anywhere as long as 14 to 17 months, spurring outrage from trade unions and advocacy organizations. The ITF maintains that “Flags of Convenience have been granting shipowners unsafe and unsustainable exemptions from important international regulations in the name of COVID-19.”
“Many Flags of Convenience have shown their true colors during this pandemic by putting the profits they make from shipowners ahead of the lives of seafarers and their human rights,” says Smith.
Port states aren’t innocent either. Every country has jurisdiction over its own docks and their Port State Control is responsible for enforcing maritime regulations and detaining ships that have clearly violated them. Inspections not only cover the technical aspects of a ship—whether the engine is operating correctly, the fuel is up to environmental standards—but are supposed to interrogate the quality of life on the ship and the working conditions of seafarers.
“If every country in the world did this, there would be no issues with overdue seafarers,” Bhati asserts.
But port states, hesitant to spend resources, do the paperwork, or take responsibility for correcting the violations perpetrated on board, instead disregarded the injustices happening in their ports. Their inaction sent a message loud and clear to many seafarers that owners and states wouldn’t be held accountable. The onus of pursuing justice on board is once again placed on seafarers, who operate at a severe disadvantage compared to their employers, and threaten their own livelihoods when they speak out.
Seafarers work under a contract-based system where good, steady salaries mean there are always more workers available than jobs despite the tough lifestyle and inherent dangers that come with the work and where the large labor pool makes it easy for employers to maintain blacklists. Those are technically illegal, but as the current crisis has highlighted, the maritime industry is notoriously bad at enforcing its own rules. Few international seafarers belong to unions (though they may sail on unionized ships) and many are afraid of the consequences of speaking out—that they’ll be cut off from their source of income and replaced by another sailor eager for work and willing to stay quiet.
“Contract-based employment means that no one has to give you an explanation of why you haven’t been picked for a new contract,” says Barcellona. “It’s very hard to prove you’ve been blacklisted for speaking up on an issue like health and safety, or for demanding the shipowner conduct a crew change. How do you prove the reason you didn’t get a new contract is because of what you did under the last contract?”
This issue is especially prevalent in such countries as the Philippines, Indonesia, China, India, Ukraine, and Russia, which supply most of the world’s crews. There’s an unspoken but distinct racial and economic hierarchy within the industry, in which sailors from Western regions like the U.S. or Scandinavia are most represented in higher level positions and protected by unions. Contracts usually run around four months for captains and higher-ranking officers, six months for mid-level officers and nine months or longer for ordinary and able-bodied seamen.
For Filipinos especially, seafaring jobs averaging $1,000 a month, one of the lowest rates for any nationality, pay much more than most local work provides. With about 250,000 Filipinos working the seas on any given day, they are the largest nationality employed in the industry, making up about 20 percent of the world’s seafarers. They also make up the highest proportion of sailors who are not ranked as officers, and thus, easily replaceable.
In the Philippines, they call it “contractualization.” It’s just another aspect of the Philippine government’s cheap labor program started by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and continued by every regime, until now, with Rodrigo Duterte, which has sent Filipinos to every corner of the globe trained as nurses, domestic helpers, and sailors. But the underlying issue of this program is the inherent disposability of the labor, thus putting the rights of workers, and the security of their employment in perpetual jeopardy.
“Filipino [sailors] are afraid to lose their jobs,” says Edwin Dela Cruz, president of the International Seafarers Action Center. “They are always contractual. Every time they go home, they are not sure that they will be rehired next time. It’s a buyer’s market.”
Filipino cruise workers were some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and among the first cases outside of China. They were often forced to continue working despite coronavirus protocols, while passengers were quarantined and had access to medical attention. But the fear of speaking out and losing their jobs largely outweighed the potentially deadly consequences of working under problematic conditions. Dela Cruz and his organization have lobbied the Philippine Congress to end contractualization with legislation called the “Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers,” but he acknowledged that recognizing the rights of poor Filipino workers against wealthy corporate interests is an uphill battle.
Bhati, on the other hand, was monumentally lucky. Eventually, after four extra months on board, he and his crewmates were replaced by a new crew and flown back to India on special charter flights last July. He felt grateful towards his employer for doing the right thing but he knows that most people were not shown the same treatment. What angers him most is the fact that protections for seafarers already exist—at least on paper.
“You have all the legislation, who will implement it?” he asks. “It’s a joke. They always find a way through it, or find a way to override it. They don’t have it in their hearts to implement it because of the money.”
Bhati is understandably frustrated with unions like the ITF: “Unions are pro-owners, pro-managers, they’re not pro-seafarers. The ITF, if you’re under contract, under a union, it's the union’s job to protect its people, seafarers, their job is for these times. These are the times we need them…Their response was pathetic.”
As part of a lengthy statement, Barcellona called anger at shipowners for closed borders and scarce flights and anger at the ITF for lack of action “anger misdirected” and said that “much of the ITF’s most important work will not always be visible to our critics, or to seafarers themselves,” emphasizing how difficult their mission is.
“The ITF and our seafarer union affiliates have done an extraordinary job through this pandemic to fight for seafarers and their rights,” Barcellona states. “Together, our team has used the few resources we have, to expose employers who have refused to perform crew changes, and to pressure governments to take action. We have pushed back on employers who tried to cut health and safety corners. We have stopped countries from further undermining safe maximum time limits on board. We have helped thousands of seafarers to come ashore and go home to their families.”
Many, like Bhati, ask why ITF didn’t simply call for a strike?
Barcellona claimed that striking was “neither supported by seafarers, nor conducive to pressuring the actual decision-makers we needed to influence” and in an “incredibly precarious industry” would have career-ending repercussions for the seafarers who engaged in such a risk.
“In striking, seafarers would have also put themselves in a legally dangerous situation, since many countries have strict rules regarding strikes with severe penalties payable by seafarers themselves. To complicate matters, seafarers would have had to be mindful of the several jurisdictions that often apply before taking action.”
In the end, every recourse and form of relief for seafarers has been at the whim of shipowners and governments, always with extreme and adverse risk on the part of the seafarers. But many have shown extreme bravery in standing up for themselves and their fellow sailors.
Yurii Babii is a 23-year-old electro-technical officer from Ukraine, who has been sailing on ships since he was 21. After the first two months of extensions, Babii decided to put his foot down on what looked like the beginning of a never-ending cycle that would see his time on board extended far beyond his original contract. Babii told The Daily Beast what he told his superiors: “I will not perform my duties; I will be like a passenger on the vessel.”
He acknowledged that his particular skill set and youth (or some could argue, naïveté) gave him confidence to speak out for himself that others couldn’t afford, certain he would find work again. But he also argued that there is swift action that can be done to help individual seafarers if they know how to push the right buttons. Babii recalls sending letters to the IMO and to one of the headquarters of his former ship’s company, MSC, in Odessa.
He said: “If you will not help me, new letters will be in your office.” After two months later, Babii made it off his ship.
There are many stories like that of Babii and Bhati, individuals advocating publicly for better treatment for all seafarers—but in a workforce of over one million there are even more untold stories of seafarers working under extreme pressure and living without access to the resources and protections they need to call out abuses against them. Still, these seafarers rise against the tide of injustice, banding together the way they must at sea.
When one Filipino seafarer died at sea after a lack of medical attention, his crewmates testified in front of the Philippine Congress about their adversity, confirming that it is often the laborers themselves who put their livelihoods on the line to see progress.
“The government is doing nothing. The shipowners are doing nothing. The manning agents do not even know the problems of their own crew,” Dela Cruz tells me. “It’s seafarers themselves, and advocates, working to help each other and helping themselves.”