A major maritime crisis is getting so bad some seafarers are injuring themselves just to get home.
The problem is turning up at our door. Some of these crews are arriving with unpaid wages. Others haven’t touched dry land since the start of the pandemic while a few are badly in need of medical assistance.
An estimated 400,000 seafarers are still on these ships despite their seafaring contracts having come to an end.
To go back to their families they need access to airports, so they can swap places with others.
The Government has passed provisions allowing things like crew changes (which are guaranteed under the Maritime Labour Convention) to happen, but that’s not the full story.
The London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is criticising New Zealand for running a seemingly generous policy for these seafarers on paper, but then allowing local port companies and district health boards (DHBs) to nullify these policies by passing their own rules.
Left unaddressed the issue could lead to a major maritime accident in our waters, drive up costs and discourage some ships from visiting.PlayUnmuteCurrent Time 0:50/Duration 1:39Loaded: 100.00% FullscreenJOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFFThe Seafarers Mission chair says crews whose contracts have been extended by months without shore leave feel “imprisoned.”
ITF navigation section co-ordinator Fabrizio Barcellona says while New Zealand’s response to this issue has been good on some fronts a “bureaucratic maze” of local rules are making the country’s efforts look uncoordinated and “opaque”.
“We have to remember that hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been trapped working aboard these vessels since March last year,” Barcellona says.
“The seafarers aboard these ships don’t have Covid, they’ve been isolated for months. But they are tired and fatigued, working six or seven days a week to bring New Zealanders the goods, fuel, food and medical supplies the public needs.
“Jacinda Ardern’s Government can honour these seafarers’ sacrifice by respecting their rights and making its rules clear and easy to understand.”
Some seafarers have even found it difficult to get access to medical care here.
One needed his finger amputated, but was passed from port-to-port allegedly due to DHB objections to him coming on shore.
DHBs in the Wellington region argue it was the shipping company that didn’t want to wait, but people in the industry say extensive arrangements were made for the person to be treated in Wellington only for a chief medical office to reportedly say: “[the seafarer] is going to lose his finger anyway … [they] might as well lose it at the next port.”
A spokesman for Hutt Valley DHB says no medical officer at a Wellington hospital made this comment.
Shipping NZ President Thompson remembers the incident and says people in the industry had to get Maritime NZ involved just to get the person treated.
“This is the frustration we have. Why do we need to go to those … [lengths] to get medical treatment for somebody who needs it?
“It was kind of like one DHB passing the buck to another wasn’t it? That’s what it was.”
The Ministry of Health say it is not aware of any cases where mariners haven’t been able to secure “urgent” medical assistance and believe a case-by-case approach managed by DHBs is appropriate.
Several DHBs told Stuff they haven’t declined any requests for medical help from seafarers with one saying they’re treating one case a week.
Barcellona admits Covid-19 makes things like shore leave difficult, but argues the onus is on governments and health authorities to make it work.
“It is important for the mental and physical wellbeing of all people to be able to come ashore for a walk, a meal and some time in the sunshine.
“While traditional ‘shore leave’ may not be practical in the Covid era, governments must come up with solutions that allow seafarers shore leave in reasonable, managed ways.”
On paper, we have a workable system allowing shore leave and crew changes, but Thompson says ports have imposed onerous obligations on top of these.
District Health Boards also require people to return a negative test before they step off a ship, but there’s a catch here as well.
“They might have been tested in one port [in New Zealand] and all cleared, all negative, go to the next port with that form and the local DHB said ‘nah, that’s not acceptable for us,” Thompson says.
“Or you’re getting ports saying no they can’t have shore leave because we haven’t consulted with the community about crew coming ashore.”
Global investment funds are putting pressure on governments and shipping lines to solve this problem in part to comply with their own sustainability guidelines.
On December 21 a group of major investors (led by London-based money manager Fidelity International) who collectively hold US$2 trillion(NZ$2.8t) worth of investments in the shipping sector sent an open letter to the UN secretary-general saying the whole situation posed a risk to sustainable supply chains.
“This issue is presenting significant health and safety concerns.
“The environmental consequences of a serious maritime accident involving these cargoes could be catastrophic for our oceans and security.”
An ITF survey in September found 30 per cent of seafarers weren’t getting the medical assistance they needed while 59 per cent were being forced to extend their contracts and 11 per cent weren’t getting paid.
Yet it’s not all smooth sailing even if seafarers do get access to shore leave.
Auckland International Seafarers Centre port welfare co-ordinator Aaron Ironside says crew who get shore leave sometimes face a hostile reaction from the public.
Like one group who recently visited Tauranga.
“They were accosted in the supermarket by the public. Of course, the public knew what a crew looked like, they’d been seeing them for years,” Ironside says.
“Suddenly 10 Filipino guys [were] all standing together in the supermarket … [and members of the public] gave them a hard time, told them that they must have escaped the ship. That they shouldn’t be here.”
People like him are trying to get a handle on how these seafarers are coping, but Covid-19 restrictions are adding an extra layer of complexity.
Ironside says his first physical contact with seafarers comes when he boards the gangway in full personal protection equipment (PPE).
“We visit at the top of the gangway. The open air. We don’t go inside the ship,” Ironside says.
“It’s a challenge … you’re wearing a mask, they’re wearing a mask. They’re from another country. Sometimes it’s not always easy to hear and understand each other, but we do our best.”
The day before Ironside spoke to Stuff he was working on behalf of seafarers who had spent more than 11 months at sea. Half of the crew on-board didn’t want to stay there any longer.
“Some of the Fijian crew were not willing to sign another extension because they wanted to get back home. Their families had been affected by a cyclone. And we were helping encourage and motivate that change to happen.”
However, direct complaints from seafarers are rare because in countries like the Philippines twice as many people are trained to go to sea than there are jobs.
“A sailor is going to be very reluctant to tell you how tough it is because he does not want the company perceiving him to be any kind of problem,” Ironside says.
Inside the ‘bureaucratic maze’
Thompson says some port regulations effectively make crew changes impossible despite the existence of a special crew change visa.
Ports like Auckland and Tauranga require people who fly into the country for a crew change to spend 14 days in isolation before they board a ship, but the special visas they’re issued only last for two or three days.
If seafarers tried to comply with this rule, their visas would expire before they could board the ship.
“So basically we’re telling the industry you cannot do crew changes in Auckland or Tauranga,” Thompson says.
A spokesman for Maritime NZ says 1200 crew changes have ta place over the past five months.
“The Government has set out the steps to follow and requirements that need to be met for shore leave and crew changes to take place safely.
“As separate commercial entities, ports are legally entitled to determine who can transit through their property.”
Barcellona says he’s disappointed the Government has allowed local port authorities to add extra barriers to seafarers to crew changes and shore leave.
“There is little benefit to be had from the prevalence of unpredictable, port-by-port, ad-hoc rules. An effective crew change system requires transparency and consistency.”
You get the sense of how important shore leave is to seafarers when you talk to people like Jason Arances, who spoke via email while his ship was at the Ports of Auckland.
“I’m a Filipino sir, and it so happen I live in the stunning country like yours, Philippines.”
On his current ship he generally spends midnight onwards on ‘bridge watch’. His big social time will come after dinner when members of his crew swap stories, engage in a bit of karaoke, or play Call of Duty on their laptops.
“In port [to] have this privilege shore leave just to have this feeling in yourself being human that you’re back in society after spending long at sea … sip some local/foreign beer in the [Seafarers’ mission] house while playing billiards, ping pong, darts.”
Country manager for Swire Shipping, Brodie Stevens, says the welfare of seafarers is important to shipowners and there is a need for someone to take the lead in creating a clear set of rules and procedures for crew changes and shore leave across the country.
“I think this is the challenge that the industry has now is to try and get some clear demarcation of who is responsible for what and what is the correct procedure.”
“It would be hard to expect someone to stay on the ship till the end of Covid. That’s just nigh on impossible.”
Mission to Seafarers Oceania regional director Lance Lukin argues the financial viability of shipping is another problem.
Sailors have been turning up on our shores with unpaid wages. A sign some firms are so cash-strapped they can’t pay their workers.
These same firms are debating whether they should focus on more profitable routes through Asia and Australia during the pandemic, leaving our country with even less shipping capacity.
Lukin argues things like the ease of crew changes will factor into these debates.
“Shipping companies are making the financial decision do we travel all the way to New Zealand or do we do a lot of shorter hauls in bigger markets?”
The stress and strain is already leading to some mysterious injuries.
Ironside says one such case popped up recently on a ship sailing out of Sydney with an Indian national who found out his father was unwell back home.
“We don’t know exactly what happened, but suffice to say, within the next day he had a severe injury to his hand and had to be returned back to Sydney where he was flown home.
“And really I don’t know what happened to that man, but your two alternatives are he either harmed himself. Or, he was so distraught by being away from home that he had an industrial accident because his mind wasn’t on the job.
“Either way it’s terrible.”