As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world and forces governments and entire countries to make drastic changes in their economic programs, difficulties continue to mount for sectors that historically have faced insufficient government support and protection. Among these sectors are overseas workers and the subsector of seafarers.
In Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington in the United States, various Filipino-American solidarity groups have been working double-time to help seafarers of various nationalities who have been stranded since March 2020.
Cody Urban of the Philippine-U.S. Solidarity Organization (PUSO) said that communities and organizations along the Pacific Coast continue to generate resources and foster solidarity behind efforts to uphold the dignity, rights, and welfare of seafarers.
“Seafarers carry the weight of the global economy on their shoulders. A vast array of goods is being handled by this almost invisible workforce. Seafarers are the forgotten migrants at sea,” he said.
Urban said that it necessary to make the plight and conditions of seafarers visible and that the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers (PCCS) was founded on June 25 2020 for this purpose. He said that they have all been receiving reports about seafarers stranded in ports all over the world, unable to disembark or receive assistance from their respective governments.
Specifically in Portland, faith-based and community groups such as the Portland Seafarers Mission, the Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, International Migrants Alliance (IMA), Migrante Portland, the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), and the Fort Vancouver Seafarers Center are among the core members of the PCCS.
Seafarers are essential workers but are not given enough official protection
Seafarers’ rights advocate Jessie Silverman agreed that seafarers are often forgotten despite the fact they are among the most essential workers of the global economy and seafaring is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
In its annual report on marine safety investigations for 2020, the Republic of the Marshall Island (RMI) recorded a total of 726 very serious marine casualties, marine incidents, and occurrences.
“Seafarers often fall through the gap of aid and legal protection, and this has become glaringly clear during the Covid-19 global pandemic where over 300,000 seafarers have been affected. They’ve gotten very little or even no help from their agencies and the governments in their respective countries acted too late in many instances,” Silverman told Maritime Fairtrade.
“Seafarers are constantly at risk of falling accidents, injury, and illness because of poor conditions and unsafe practices aboard on ships,” she said. “The pandemic exacerbated the problems that already existed for seafarers. They already suffered from many difficulties even before Covid-19, but the situation is much worse now because of the serious lack of support from agencies.”
Appalling living conditions
During one of the ship-visits the PCCS conducted to deliver groceries and toiletries to seafarers prohibited from disembarking, seafarers told Silverman and other volunteers that they were not being provided clean drinking water.
“The seafarers had to drink water that came from an old rusted water converter. There was bottled water on the ship, but these were all reserved for the captains and officers. Ordinary seafarers drank water from rusty faucets. Even though there were water bottles on the ship, they were only being distributed to the management only,” Silverman said.
Other appalling details exposed the inhumane living conditions of seafarers.
“In another ship, the meals were tight. Seafarers ate seaweed and bacon with a 2017 expiry date for breakfast. We opened the ship refrigerator and saw that meat and seafood were not stored properly: the fish was just there, without wrapping. We saw that there were trash bags were on top of the food in the walk-in freezer, with the door not properly closed. The food should be stored inside another container, and not left exposed to the trash bags,” she said.
It also appeared that the pandemic justified more exploitative rules. Seafarers told the PCCS that their captains did not give them cash so that they could buy provisions, and the captains also denied requests for provision orders.
“The usual contract for a seafarer is nine months, but because of the pandemic, contracts were extended to 12 months and even longer. In many cases, seafarers did not receive any additional pay for the extra months and the ships justified this by saying economic difficulties caused by the pandemic,” she said.
Seafarers afraid to speak up because of retaliation
As hundreds of thousands of seafarers continue to be stranded at sea during the global health crisis, the humanitarian groups aiding seafarers are unanimous in saying that conditions have become increasingly exploitative and dangerous for seafarers. The International Trade Federation (ITF) is now even referring to the situation as “modern slavery”.
Despite all their difficulties, the groups said that most seafarers find it hard to speak out about the abuse and the violations they experience.
“There have been instances when ship captains retaliated with physical abuse and even in some cases with murder. There have been reports of seafarers being thrown overboard and captains writing off these cases as accidents. We’ve spoken to seafarers who said that their captains have people locked inside freezers as punishment for minor infractions. It’s not unusual that seafarers are subjected to intimidation and threats from their ship superiors,” Silverman said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation of abuse.
Urgent medical assistance needed
The CEO of Liverpool Seafarers Center, John Wilson, shared in the October 7 issue of The Tablet, the International Catholic News Weekly, that during the London International Shipping Week in September, stories were told about seriously sick seafarers in different countries being denied vaccines or had no access to it. As Wilson said, seafarers were “forced to continue sailing with a dead colleague in the ship’s cold room.”
PCCS said that the difficulties seafarers face are myriad, but one of the most immediate issues that affect them is protection against the pandemic, and this means vaccinations.
“Apart from the usual toiletries and necessities, we’ve prioritized free vaccinations for seafarers from ships that dock in Portland,” Silverman said.
Many of the seafarers assisted by PCCS are still being denied shore leave by their respective shipping companies. They are unable to go on land to receive medical care or buy necessities.
“While many seafarers remain a low priority of shipping companies and their home governments to receive vaccinations and other protections during the pandemic, it is vital that solidarity groups mobilize their communities on land in solidarity with seafarers. They need our support to survive,” she said.
The need for faster rollout of vaccines to seafarers
One Filipino seafarer from the MV Kashing that docked in Portland shared with PCCS that when he and his colleagues were stranded at sea during the pandemic, his contract was arbitrarily extended to 16 months. Another crew member shared that back home in the Philippines, seafarers and other frontline workers are not being prioritized to receive Covid vaccines.
The different policies and requirements governing the maritime industry have created severe problems for seafarers and their access to vaccines against Covid-19. Like other migrant workers, they are bound by the vaccine constraints of their home countries. The inefficient or limited coordination between the Philippine government for instance and other governments and international agencies have left seafarers at the end of the line for vaccination priorities.
According to reports from the World Health Organization, only 36 percent of the world has so far been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The countries where a majority of seafarers hail from are among those with the lowest vaccination levels. Only 22 percent of India’s population has been vaccinated; Bangladesh and the Philippines also lag behind with 11 percent and 25 percent vaccination rates, respectively.
Different international shipping companies also only accept seafarers vaccinated with certain brands of vaccines which are as yet not widely available in the Philippines.
In the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands where there are surplus vaccines, seafarers and non-citizens have been allowed to access vaccines, but not all ships dock in these countries. Some shipping companies also buy vaccines for their seafarers, but this is possible only in countries where the government allows private companies to procure vaccines.
Seafarers who travel from one port to another and end up disembarking in some random country where they can take a plane back to their home country also have to contend with different rules regarding vaccinations as some countries recognize some vaccines but not others. For example, some seafarers ended up getting vaccinated up to six times just so they can disembark, enter the airport, board the plane, and return home.
Emma Martinez from IMA said that as migrant workers, seafarers should be given assistance and not be subjected to various conflicting regulations and policies that make their circumstances even more difficult.
“They are very far from their families, and the uncertainties and worries they encountered are considerable. Why add to their problems? Governments and health agencies should work closely together to ensure that migrant workers including seafarers get the vaccination and help they need to return home. Being stranded leaves them even more exposed to illness, including mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and even suicidal tendencies,” she said.
Overwhelming support for seafarers
As the Covid-19 pandemic is still far from coming to an end, support groups continue their campaign to assist seafarers and to drum up support for their welfare.
“As essential workers to the global economy, seafarers deserve access to health care, fair wages, safety equipment, and employment protections,” said Copeland Downs from Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (PCHRP).
“Every day at the Port of Vancouver, we see the working conditions seafarers have to deal with. We know the work is dangerous and that some ships don’t take care of their seafarers. We have to work together to make seafarers’ stay at the Port, their working conditions, and lives better.”
The Filipino-American youth group Anakbayan Portland said that they will continue to include support for seafarers in their activities.
“Most of the seafarers we’ve spoken to do not consider seafaring their ideal job. What they want is to work where they could be with their families. Seafaring takes them away from everyone and everything they love, but they got into it because they want to earn money for their families, to provide for their needs,” member Alec Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said that so long as the social and economic conditions in the home countries of seafarers do not improve, there will still be more seafarers who, in their desperation for better wages, allow themselves to be subjected to unfair and inhumane treatment and policies of shipping companies, agencies, and governments.
Image credit: All images courtesy of Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers (PCCS).