Plight of seafarers highlighted in CSA/WiMAC joint webinar
“The shipping industry and governments need to take better care of our ships’ crews, and today we are adding our voice to the call for immediate action,” stated Juan Carlos Croston, president of the Caribbean Shipping Association (CSA), in his welcome address to the most recent webinar jointly hosted by the Caribbean Shipping Association and the Women in Maritime Caribbean (WiMAC) last Tuesday.
Recalling his years as a seafarer, the CSA president said that the human element is the most important asset in global shipping and that the webinar is one way of drawing attention to the plight of seafarers in the current pandemic.
‘The human element in shipping – essential links in a multi-dynamic system’ was the topic for discussion at the second webinar in the series on the theme: ‘Caribbean Shipping Post COVID-19: A roadmap to recovery and sustainability’. Over 100 participants from the Caribbean and beyond participated on the Zoom platform to listen to presentations by industry experts and share their ideas on short-, medium- and long-term solutions.
A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
Claudia Grant, deputy director general of the Maritime Authority of Jamaica (MAJ) and immediate past president of WiMAC, was the moderator for the session. She said that “the spotlight is now shining on seafarers who once operated in the background”. In outlining the current scenario, she said “the world is witnessing the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis with 300,000 seafarers at sea, some for as long as 16 months even though the maximum period, set by the Maritime Labour Convention, for any crew member at sea is 11 months”. She introduced the first speaker, Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of the World Maritime University (WMU), to give more information on the multidimensional aspects of this issue.
Dr Doumbia-Henry stressed “the need to implement laws for the protection of, and accountability for, the human element”, with particular reference to seafarers. She said that although most states have signed on to the international conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) concerning the labour rights of seafarers, including their rights to safe transfer and repatriation, many of those states have not promulgated local laws that are in keeping with the conventions.
“Despite the globalisation of trade, countries seem to be holding on to old concepts of individual state sovereignty, instead of moving forward to align local legislation with international agreements,” Dr Doumbia-Henry declared. She said that despite the fact that shipping accounts for more than 80 per cent of world trade and that without seafarers, most of the essential products, medicines and equipment would not be able to get to countries, governments have been tardy in enacting legislation and accompanying regulations to ensure that the labour rights of ship crews are protected.
The WMU president said that in the current pandemic, the legal status of seafarers’ rights must be an urgent priority as “there are now tens of thousands of these key workers who need to be transferred from ships, with clear access to safe transit and repatriation to their homes”. She explained that many countries have closed their borders, and restricted movement on and off their ports, thereby denying access both for crews who need to transit and transfer for repatriation and for crews who need to board vessels for duty.
Dr Doumbia-Henry told participants that the WMU’s ‘Day of the Seafarer’ campaign calls on member states to recognise seafarers as “key workers” – and to provide them with support, assistance and travel options during the pandemic. The World Maritime University’s mother institution, the International Maritime Organization, recognises “the invaluable contribution that seafarers make to international trade and the world economy, often at great personal cost to themselves and their families”. The ILO has joined the IMO in recognising that “seafarers should be officially recognised as key workers, and be granted exemptions from any travel restrictions and special considerations so as to enable them to join and leave their ships and return home without impediment, while complying with good practice in infection control”.
Helen Buni of the Technical Cooperation Division in the IMO, which is the focal point for Women in Maritime, the IMO programme on diversity and gender, drew attention to the fact that “COVID response and recovery requires a multi-agency, multidisciplinary and whole-of-government approach”. She referred to the IMO Circular Letter No. 4204 Addenda 1 to 26 that outlines measures for health and preventive actions; facilitation of trade; extension of seafarers certificates; port state control; repatriation of seafarers/crew change; and government cooperation.
Buni said that in response to the stressful conditions being experienced by seafarers awaiting repatriation, the IMO has been actively involved in helping these persons aboard vessels to cope with their situation. She said that “helpful advice is being offered on how to help stressed colleagues, keeping team morale up, and staying focused on personal well-being”.
COPING ABOARD DURING LOCKDOWN
Participants in the webinar were given up-close engagement with what is actually happening aboard these ships when Captain Kate McCue spoke from the helm of the Celebrity Summit. She is the first American woman to command a mega cruise ship.
Captain McCue revealed that when cruise shipping came to a halt in March, there were 1,350 crew members aboard her vessel who needed repatriation. She said there are now 233 members from 43 countries on board, still at sea, and that an additional 77 persons will be repatriated in mid-August. So far, 43,000 crew members have been repatriated from Celebrity Cruises vessels alone.
The cruise ship captain said that one of the first steps taken for the well-being of their crew after the lockdown, was to move them all up to the balcony state rooms to lift crew morale and allow more access to sunlight for their health. She said that activities are scheduled, with due consideration for social distancing, and that communication with the outside world is facilitated through telephones, Internet and Wi-Fi so all are connected with their homelands and loved ones.
With regard to the cooperation, or lack thereof, from governments and authorities, Captain McCue had this to say: “We need governments and their respective authorities to give more support for the efforts we are making to repatriate our crew members. Some countries are setting a good example, but we need the cooperation of all governments so that seafarers can transit safely through seaports and airports and be united with their families.”
Useful insights into the role of ship agents, and the challenges they face in this period, were given by Martine Bramwell, operations manager for the Lannaman & Morris (Shipping) Limited Group of Companies. She said that one of the responsibilities of the shipping agents is to develop efficient and sustainable procedures to support vessel calls represented by the company, with consideration to local laws and regulations.
Bramwell noted that “the various jurisdictions have different regulations, even when they have signed on to international conventions for the rights of seafarers”. She said that this is the crux of the problem, as some vessels are not even being allowed to dock at some ports, even when they have medical emergencies aboard.
“There are many layers of authorities and regulations that the shipping agent has to engage with in carrying out our responsibilities to the shipping lines we represent,” Bramwell explained. She said that the experience since May, when borders started opening up, is that there is no uniformity in the regulations within and among states. She is therefore calling for a central database that shipping agents can refer to in order to know what are the regulations in effect for the various jurisdictions.
The shipping executive expressed the view that governments need to be more sensitive to the human element, as seafarers are responsible for getting most of the much-needed supplies of food, medicine and equipment to their countries. She said that timely information from the authorities is also essential, as regulations can change overnight and this can cause serious dislocation if not speedily communicated. Bramwell closed by saying: “Awareness and information are essential for our success in sustaining the supply chain.”
PROMOTING THE WELL-BEING OF CREW MEMBERS
The final speaker at the webinar was Michael Wardwell, general manager for Tropical Shipping Company, who expressed the need for a united approach by governments, airlines and shipping lines to facilitate the safe transit and repatriation of seafarers. He said the lack of flights and cessation of inter-island travel is a big challenge for the efforts at repatriation. He said that his company has been making every effort to promote the well-being of their crew members stuck on board; these include facilitation of communication with families and even the provision of treadmill exercise machines for the health of seafarers.
“We are being proactive in our approach,” the shipping executive said, noting that the health regime on board ships are strictly enforced, including regular temperature check, social distancing and sanitisation. He commended the seafarers of Tropical Shipping for their positive attitude, even while experiencing a most stressful situation.
The discussion that followed the presentation was very interactive, and it was during this session that Dr Doumbia-Henry explained that the Seafarer Identification Document (SID) that was revised in 2003 includes biometric identification, and that this should satisfy governments’ security concerns and facilitate transit and transfer of seafarers without visas.
During the seminar, quick polls were taken among participants. One poll question was: Has the shipping industry preference to operate below the radar, as invisible and efficient conveyor of trade, contributed to lack of awareness of the industry and its workers, notably seafarers? To this, there was an overwhelming response of ‘yes’ by the participants.
In her closing remarks, moderator Claudia Grant invited all participants to join in the next joint CSA/WiMAC webinar on August 25, when the discussion will focus on engagement and compliance with new systems and functions during the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19.