“Seafarers, my dear colleagues, you are at the forefront of this global fight. I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not forgotten. " That's how IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim wrote in a personal message to the world's seafarers on April 20.
Two months later, global trade still works, but many of those who make it work are worse off. Around the world, thousands of sailors are isolated on board ships without the opportunity to return to their loved ones. Their own economy has often been affected, for some it’s at the bottom. The pay, which those at home also depend on, is suddenly gone. Maybe the job too. Both mental and physical health falter. Tragic reports of suicide are coming.
“It has happened on cargo ships, but especially on cruise ships where you often are isolated without access to a swimming pool, gym or anything. On a ship that is outside Barbados and with whom I have contact, a couple of deaths have occurred”, Christer Lindvall, sea captain and member of the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation, says.
He himself attended the IMO meeting in Manilla ten years ago when the decision was made to institute a seafarers' day. The purpose was to shed light on a profession with a bright future. Every year since then, a theme has been campaigned ahead of the day, a theme that will make shipping a little better, a little more attractive. Two years ago, the need for more women at sea was recognized, while last year was devoted to the health of sailors. This year, the outlook is more clearly directed towards the IMO Member States with the message to also recognize seafarers, just like worlds nursing staff, as key workers during the corona pandemic. The campaign emphasizes the importance to make it possible for onboarding employees to travel within and between countries.
“In Sweden, it has worked relatively well. On tankers, the Filipino crew, as far as I understand, have agreed to remain on board for a while beyond their period. For them, there are two reasons for that. First, they get stuck in Manilla if they go home. There are no internal communications at the moment. Second, they have families to support. Some only get paid when they are on board and the risk is overhelming that they lose the job if they go home.”
How, then, have the world's shipowners handled the corona situation? Christer Lindvall has seen both good and bad and examples.
“There are those who have done everything to make the crew come home, even chartered vessels, while the worst ones is deducting wages or extending the contracts to 17 months, as is now done in Panama. The big problem, however, is not the shipowners but the states. Both coastal, flag and port states – even the sailors' home countries set boundaries.”