Nautilus ITF ship inspector Tommy Molloy provides regular insights into his work with the world's seafarers who are often fatigued, fearful and always far from home.
Have you ever been delayed at work; something crops up at the last minute and you must stay? Which means you miss your bus, or train or get snarled up in those traffic jams you always try to avoid.
How much worse would it be if you simply couldn't get out of your workplace, if all the doors were locked, the windows barred, and you were told you would have to stay indefinitely. Oh, and your employer could only afford to pay you part of your salary or none of it at all. They'd be good enough to provide you with food, if they could get it delivered, and a bed.
Imagine the effect on your family, your mental well-being. Surely there would be long- term implications as well as short-term inconveniences.
That couldn't happen though, could it?
Except it is happening right now to more than 100,000 seafarers stuck on ships around the world, far from home long after their contracts have expired. Normally, around 100,000 seafarers per month would rotate on and off ships.
For European and many other officers those contracts could typically be for a period of two to six months, sometimes longer. For Asian ratings it would typically be for a period of nine months (plus or minus one month at the discretion of their employer. But it's predominantly plus, hardly ever minus).
Many thousands of seafarers have now exceeded those periods. Fatigue becomes a real problem. Not being with your immediate family at such a time, worrying about how they are coping and yet just as worried at the prospect of contracting the Coronavirus en-route home and endangering them will also begin to affect one's mental well-being. The combination is toxic and has great potential to threaten the safe operation of the ship.
At the outset of the Covid-19 breakout, International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) affiliated unions that sign the collective bargaining agreements which regulate the conditions of employment for many seafarers agreed that we would take no action against employers who, in the current circumstances, were unable to repatriate crew to their homes, so long as seafarers were issued with proper contract extensions.
The reality is that with most countries in lock-down, internal and international travel restricted, severely reduced flight availability, it is undoubtedly difficult for shipping companies to get crew stuck on ships relieved by crew in lock-down at home without concerted action from governments around the world to facilitate it.
But for most seafarers currently on-board ships there is no opportunity to return home.
Towards the end of March, following intense lobbying by several maritime organisations including ITF, Nautilus International, the International Chamber of Shipping and the UK Chamber of Shipping, the UK designated seafarers as key workers. Approximately 90% of everything we use comes to us by sea. It is vital that this supply chain, which can only function with the efforts of seafarers, is given every assistance to continue as smoothly and as safely as possible.
The lobbying continues with International Labor Organization, International Maritime Organization, and the World Health Organization continuing to press governments to assist with processes to aid safe crew changes in order to maintain the trade that enables our economies to function.
Like most ITF Inspectors around the globe, I am required to comply with government social distancing requirements. I am not considered a key worker. So I am unable and frankly unwilling to inspect ships and jeopardise both crew on board and my family and community during this period.
There will always be those that seek to take advantage of an already dire situation. We are aware of numerous companies changing or attempting to change existing terms and conditions of employment.
We are very aware that along with millions of other workers around the world many seafarers will pay a heavy price. Many companies will claim they simply cannot pay crew wages. Many will be left abandoned on ships that owners will walk away from. Many will languish for months on ships with no fuel and no power, being fed by charity if they are lucky, hoping that their ship can eventually be sold – even for scrap – so that ITF can recover their wages for them. So that they can eventually return home to their families after this long day's night.
We are not alone in thinking we are about to be as busy as we have ever been. Ships are registered by their owners in the likes of Panama, Liberia, Belize, Cook Islands, Honduras, Vanuatu, and so on precisely because there is very little by way of social provision that they must comply with. No furlough schemes there. No redundancy, no unemployment benefit. I don't have to go on.
All of which makes missing the bus home because you worked late a little more palatable. Nonetheless, I hope you don't get delayed beyond your expected finishing time and that if you are continuing to work for the benefit of the rest of us during this period. I thank you and hope you and your loved ones remain safe and well. Please keep a good thought for the seafarers who keep us supplied and, if you feel it, please share their plight and your indignation.
Tommy Molloy, ITF Inspector, Liverpool, North West England and Wales.