By: Desai Shan
Desai Shan is Assistant Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. As a dedicated researcher in the fields of maritime law and occupational health and safety (OHS), she has published several research articles on Canadian and Chinese seafarers’ rights to occupational health and safety, including Employment-related Mobility, Regulatory Weakness, and Potential Fatigue-related Safety Concerns in Short-sea Seafaring on Canada’s Great Lakes and St Lawrence Seaway, and Workplace Death at Sea: Chinese Surviving Families’ Experiences of Compensation Claims.
Empty cities, empty communities, and empty shelves in the supermarkets. Busy ports, busy shipping lines transporting food, fuel and supplies across the globe.
The COVID-19 outbreak has changed the world we live in. Borders closed to international travel, and other unprecedented travel restrictions have been one prominent outcome. Most governments have recognized the need to continue global trade during the COVID-19 outbreak period, but few borders are now open to the key personnel, seafarers, who are in charge of the transport of more than 90% of global commodities.
Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau has said, “Staying home is your way to serve.” But not everyone has this privilege. Our capacity to stay safe at home depends on the mobility outside our homes of essential workers, including seafarers, as they serve the rest of us. Their efforts are required to transport the food, fuel, medical equipment and other supplies necessary to sustain the operation of our communities and societies.
As a public health response to prevent and control the international spread of COVID-19, many governments have introduced restrictions prohibiting the entrance of foreign citizens, including through ports. As a result, seafarers’ entitlement to shore leave is being denied, and in some cases, crew changes are prohibited.
On February 1st, 2020, Singaporean authorities stopped Chinese seafarers from coming ashore (Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, 2020). On March 17th, 2020, Maersk, the world’s largest global carrier, suspended all crew changes on board (Schuler, 2020). On March 31st, the Ministry of Transport of China started to prohibit foreign seafarers from conducting crew changes in Chinese ports (CNSS, 2020).
Canada is one of the few countries that is an exception to this pattern. After implementing travel bans on the entry of foreign nationals into Canada, the Canadian government included seafarers in its list of essential workers and issued exemptions for them so long as they had no symptoms of COVID-19 or indicated they might have been exposed. Transport Canada has promised to ensure the essential movement of domestic and international seafarers, including crew changes (Transport Canada, 2020a).
Shore leave is an opportunity for seafarers to take a short break in port, do some grocery shopping and communicate with families through high-speed internet. It can help seafarers mitigate the feeling of loneliness and isolation on board. On April 3rd, Transport Canada (2020b) indicated that essential shore leave may be granted asymptomatic crew, with a restriction that the leave does not exceed four hours. However, on April 8th, the Star reported that Canadian crews on cargo ships were being denied shore leave in Halifax (MacDonald, 2020). This news report shows that, in practice, at least some seafarers’ shore leave requests are being denied in the COVID-19 crisis, even though federal policy expressly permits seafarers’ entitlement to shore leave. One possible explanation for this inconsistency between policy and practice is that provincial and municipal public health measures may create extra barriers for seafarers to obtain shore leave opportunities. In addition, in order to reduce the risk of infection risk, employers and unions have agreed to suspend shore leave arrangements for seafarers (MacDonald, 2020).
In the scenario of shore leave denial, threats to the mental health of seafarers should not be the only cost to be considered as suggested by MacDonald (2020). Shore leave denial consequences also include an increased risk of fatigue-related marine casualties posing a serious threat to human life, property safety and the marine environment.
Crew changes are even more crucial than shore leave in that they relieve seafarers from their heavy workloads at sea and enable them to have a period of rest and to spend time with families and friends between voyages. It is estimated that about 100,000 seafarers need to be changed every month around the world. MacDonald (2020) reports that some foreign companies are aiming to extend contracts to a year thereby violating a key international labour standard. As per the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, the maximum continuous period a seafarer can stay on board is 11 months. This minimum labour standard applies to some seafarers; others operate on shorter rotations varying between three and nine months. The purpose of standards and other limits on rotations is to ensure seafarers will not become exhausted while working onboard. This is a crucial safety measure to prevent fatigue-related maritime accidents and incidents.
Crew changes needs to happen but, in addition, crew change-related travel between vessels and home must be carefully managed to ensure that health and safety standards are not compromised and so that vital supplies can continue to be transported safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. This travel is often complex and has been made more challenging by reductions and constraints on local, national and international mobility associated with pandemic-related measures. Once off the ship, seafarers need to get from their port of debarkation to their home, which may be in a different city, region or country. Each step of their journey comes with new risks of exposure for them and for those who serve them. Once they disembark from the ship, they may need to go through self-isolation or quarantine in the country/city of the port of debarkation, further self-isolation before or after returning to their home province/country and self-isolation on their return before boarding their vessel. Even when granted essential status, they will be barred from travel, if they are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone on board or in the port. If symptoms of a COVID-19 infection develop after debarkation, they may end up stranded in or near international airports and their health plan coverage may also be affected if they need treatment. In essence, this can be a grey area depending on different shipowners’ policies.
Depending on the location of their port of departure or debarkation in relation to their home residence, they will require access to private or company vehicles, taxis, buses or trains and in many cases, air travel both going home and coming back to their vessel. They will likely experience interruptions and challenges in both directions as they deal with border crossings and flight cancellations.
Tightening borders is a way to protect public health; denying essential workers’ right to rest and to safe and supported transport between their vessels and their homes is a threat to their health and to public health. To ensure the health and safety of essential maritime workers, port states need to, wherever possible, exempt them from travel bans and facilitate crew changes for ships. The various steps in their often complex journeys to and from work need to be as smooth and as safe as possible, to protect their health onboard and off the vessel, the health of their families and the health of those who serve them on their journeys. For seafarers with symptoms, their right to access medical care and to appropriate land-based quarantine and isolation measures need to be in place. Self-isolation of an infected seafarer in their cabin is hazardous for other crew because the ventilation systems may bring the virus to all cabins. This costly lesson was learned from the Diamond Princess experiment in self-isolation on board for passengers and crew (Vergano, 2020).
“People who carry fuel for the community shall not be left frozen in the snow.” This was the slogan Chinese people used to fight for the dignity and welfare of health care workers in Wuhan. Similarly, seafarers, people who carry fuel, food and supplies for the world shall not be stranded at sea.
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Photo Credit: Molto Bureau and Andriy Muzichka. “Granvik Shipping.” CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://www.behance.net/gallery/37480715/Granvik-Shipping