The Hundreds of Thousands of Stranded Maritime Workers Are the Invisible Victims of the Pandemic

Hundreds of thousands of maritime workers remain stranded at sea because many countries refuse to classify them as “essential workers” and because shipowners are prioritizing profits over worker safety. Seafarers have suffered enough — it’s time to bring them home.

The Avontuur ship, a two-masted schooner built in 1920. (Timbercoast)

I was at sea when the COVID-19 lockdowns hit in March. The restrictions on land initially meant little to us: we were already locked into a confined space, with no possibility of leaving. The realization of what was happening only kicked in later, when we arrived in Pointe-à-Pitre, the port of Guadeloupe in the French Antilles, on March 24.

We were meant to sail to Marie-Galante, one of Guadeloupe’s islands, to pick up a cargo of rum. But on March 19, we received a satellite message from our shipowner that we would not be allowed to make land anywhere in the Antilles. All ports in the area were closed. And pretty much every European country had gone into lockdown.

The world had certainly changed since we’d left the Canary Islands a few weeks earlier. The annual carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the second-largest celebration of its kind in the world, had gone off without any restrictions in late February. No face masks. No social distancing. No fear of community transmission.

Now we were in a completely different world. Would we be able to load the cargo as planned? Would we be able to provision for the remainder of the trip? Would we be allowed any shore leave after more than three weeks — and the entire Atlantic Ocean — on the water? And, most importantly, would we be allowed to change crews?

None of these questions were easy to answer. But as our captain and the shipowner explored options, one thing became clear: crew change would be very difficult. Even if any of the crew were allowed to step off in the French Antilles, new workers would have to replace them. Because regardless of our personal plans, the ship would have to sail on, or else the shipping company would go bankrupt.

We weren’t unique in our predicament. At the time, some 1.6 million seafarers were working aboard commercial cargo ships, roughly the population of Philadelphia. Hardly any one of us would be allowed shore leave or crew change anytime soon. The result: a global “crew change crisis” for maritime workers that still hasn’t abated. Roughly four hundred thousand seafarers remain stranded.

Contract Extensions for the Common Good

In August, the secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Kitack Lim, insisted that the estimated three hundred thousand seafarers then stranded must be repatriated. “A humanitarian crisis is taking place at sea, and urgent action is needed to protect seafarers’ health and ensure the safety of shipping,” Lim said in a statement. “Overly fatigued and mentally exhausted seafarers are being asked to continue operating vessels, increasing the risk of shipping casualties.”

As early as April 1, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) had been sounding the alarm bell. As the Philippines and Ukraine — two countries with large maritime labor forces — closed their borders in March, crew change became practically impossible. At the same time, flag states like Panama — countries with “open” shipping registries and large commercial fleets — allowed contracts to extend beyond the eleven-month statutory maximum under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

The MLC sets out basic requirements regarding maximum working hours, minimum rest hours, and maximum contract length. Though well below those of many rich countries, they provide enforceable standards for the many seafarers who work on ships that fly flags of convenience — issued by “flag states” that often lack strict labor, safety, and environmental regulations.

Initially, seafarers and the ITF accepted contract extensions without much complaining. They recognize that people ashore rely on the goods they supply. But few countries have deemed them “essential” or “key” workers — something the IMO has called for since April 1 — which would allow them to travel to and from work despite COVID-19 restrictions. So many seafarers, who often have to catch international flights to get back home, remain stranded.

Sailing With a Mission

I have been comparatively lucky. On July 23, I was able to disembark with my fellow crew members of the Avontuur in Hamburg, Germany and travel home to Australia without much fuss within days.

Fifteen of us had been stuck aboard — most of us for more than six months, the first officer and me for five months. But three key things set us apart from almost every other cargo vessel.

First, we were on a sailing vessel. A two-masted schooner built in 1920, to be precise. This made us exceptional in both age and propulsion technology: most cargo vessels have a lifespan of no more than twenty-five years, and virtually all of them run on massive fossil-fuel guzzling engines. As we were sailing, only two other cargo vessels were carrying cargo across the Atlantic under sail.

Second, the Avontuur, alongside a handful of other “sail cargo” vessels, sails with a mission: reducing carbon emissions from maritime cargo transport. Shipping goods by sea is less carbon-intensive than by rail, road, or air. But because we ship 90 percent of everything we consume, the total emissions from maritime transport amount to about as much as those from civil aviation. The Avontuur, along with other “sail cargo” vessels, aims to decarbonize shipping by using wind propulsion.

Third, our crew was a mix of professional seafarers and “shipmates,” who had paid Timbercoast, the shipping company that operates the vessel, to work on the ship. Such an arrangement, where professional and volunteer crew jointly operate traditional vessels is common on “sail training” and “sail cargo” ships. I was aboard as one of eight trainees, alongside seven professional crew, which consisted of a captain, two officers, a bosun, two deckhands, and a cook. I joined the voyage as a researcher exploring the revival of such sailing cargo vessels.

Overall, I did not feel the same uncertainty that many fellow seafarers do. Once it became clear that crew change in the Americas wasn’t going to happen, I knew all along that my journey would end in Hamburg. That was certain. The only uncertainty was when we’d arrive. And that was solely due to the fact that we relied on fickle winds to propel us there. Arriving we would — and we did.

Crew Change Remains in Crisis

On May 1, International Workers’ Day, we were docked in the port of Veracruz, Mexico. That day, all ships sounded their horns, rendering the invisible fate of stranded seafarers audible. Our protest call came in response to an invitation of the harbormaster, Gabriel Ángel Carreón Pérez. But the clarion call was global. The day before, he circulated a message to all vessels in port, asking everyone to sound their horns at 12 PM local time. As far as we could tell, all ships complied.

BIMCO, the Baltic and International Maritime Council, an international shipping association that represents shipowners, reports that as of October 7, forty countries and three Dutch islands in the Antilles remain closed for seafarers. Many more countries continue to enforce restrictions based on travel history, require quarantine, or demand crew travel to the airport immediately.

So many seafarers remain stranded. Some have not left their ship for well over a year, causing significant physical and psychological hardship. The main challenge for seafarers who are trapped aboard their ships is the sheer uncertainty they face. When and where will they be able to step off? Will they be able to get home? Will they be able to get back to work afterward? And what will “home” be like?

What Is the New Normal in Shipping?

Despite restrictions easing, the “crew change crisis” is escalating. The nearly four hundred thousand maritime workers stuck at sea is up one hundred thousand from August, when IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim called for urgent action.

With the crisis persisting and more options for crew change becoming available, tensions are emerging between workers and their bosses. Labor unions and their peak body, the ITF, vocally prioritize crew welfare and urge repatriation and crew change as per contract terms. Shipowners, on the other hand, tend to think solely of their bottom line. Their priority is to deliver cargo at the port of destination, with no delays — lest they risk having to pay hefty penalties to cargo owners for tardiness.

But shipping companies are doing well. Thanks to market consolidation, mostly through inter-corporate alliances, shipping rates have continued to be high through 2020. It is high time that the shipping industry accepts that the real challenges it faced due to border closures in early 2020 no longer exist. Crew change is now possible and should be facilitated in line with seafarers’ contracts and the Maritime Labour Convention, even if this leads to minor delays.

The continuing reliance on seafarers working beyond their contracts poses a safety risk and infringes on workers’ rights. It creates a situation that Jan de Boer, an IMO representative who has worked to repatriate many stranded seafarers this year, says borders on forced labor.

Virtually every country in the world relies on maritime shipping for its imports and exports, and despite trade wars and incentives to “re-shore” manufacturing, that will remain so for the time being. Right now, we need to ensure that the Maritime Labour Convention isn’t permanently undermined due to the initial “force majeure” of the COVID-19 pandemic and that crew change, no matter the cost, is possible.

And crucially, that extra cost is something shipping companies, not workers, should bear. Seafarers have struggled enough this year.