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Lost at sea

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - June 22, 2021 - 12:00am

For six days in March of this year, the attention of much of the world was riveted – not to the ongoing pandemic – but to one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The Suez Canal is one of the marvels of modern engineering, a man-made waterway that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and allows a much shorter passage for ships traveling between Asia and Europe.

More than a tenth of global trade uses the canal, and for six days a 220,000-ton cargo ship named “Ever Given” was stuck in the canal, barring others from passage. A world starved for news that was not pandemic related was riveted by the logistical problem and the incongruous image of tiny bulldozers attempting to liberate the huge ship… but as soon as the ship was freed, the attention of the virtual spectators drifted to other things.

But while the ship may be free, its crew is not. Egypt, the nation with jurisdiction over the Suez Canal, has detained not only the ship’s cargo but also its 26-person crew. While Egypt, the ship’s owners and insurers wrangle about fault and compensation, the crew members are trapped in a legal limbo, unable to carry on their jobs or return home without any findings of fault or criminality, or even an allegation of the same for most of the crew. Yet few are continuing to watch over their plight.

The way the needs of seafarers are invisible to the public is sadly common, in spite of the fact that so much depends on them. In fact, seafarer abandonment – when a shipowner fails their fundamental obligations to ensure timely repatriation, payment or the provision of basic life necessities – is horrifyingly common, and has been recognized as a serious issue by the International Maritime Organization. The number of seafarer abandonment cases more than doubled in 2020 as compared to the previous year, and together with the crew change crisis that I wrote about last year, these are clear signs of the immense hardship being placed on the shoulders of seafarers during this pandemic.

As I said in that column: “Seafarers, both Filipino and foreign, need our help. But the public response to their plight has been muted… Trapped on their ships, it’s more difficult for seafarers to make their plight known – they cannot demonstrate on the streets, or personally petition government offices. It is up to others to bring their concerns to the fore, and in the recent weeks – as the scale of the difficulties they face has become more apparent – there has been an increasing push for governments around the world to declare seafarers to be ‘key workers’ during the pandemic.”

Since then, there have been some positive changes. In the Philippines, our seafarers have been elevated in vaccine priority to the A4 group, one of the top four priority sectors, in recognition of the importance of their work and the heightened risks they are exposed to. Their vaccination plans take into consideration the fact that they may need specific vaccines in order to be allowed into certain foreign ports in the course of their work. Many nations have classified seafarers as key workers during the pandemic, and in December the UN unanimously adopted a resolution which sought to strengthen international cooperation to address the challenges faced by seafarers. Soon after, a diverse group of private entities followed suit by signing the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change. And the current estimated number of seafarers that remain stranded at sea far beyond the length of their contracts has been cut in half from its height last year.

But it’s key to remember that this height was 400,000 – so this means that 200,000 seafarers are still stranded far away from their homes, dealing with physical and mental hardship. Meanwhile, the existence of 200,000 seafarers unable to leave means that there are likely an equivalent number of seafarers who are stuck on land, unable to do their jobs and earn money for their families at a time when they may need such liquidity the most. All this while maritime transport is more important than ever, with so much disruption in the normal transportation of essential goods, including the medicines required to maintain the battle against COVID-19.

As the International Day of the Seafarer once again approaches on the 25th of June, it’s important to take the opportunity to once again shine the spotlight on the neglected needs of seafarers. As we’ve seen, there is much that is still left to be done for seafarers, to safeguard their lives and livelihoods and to allow them to better do their jobs, jobs that are essential for many of the rest of us to do ours.

More must be done to allow for timely crew change to occur, in a safe but expedient manner, and a global consensus should be arrived at that would put clear obligations on both port nations and shipowners in relation to such changes. Changes to the status quo should involve a lessening of the conditions to which crew change is subject (some nations impose conditions based on travel history or nationalities), the abolition of “no crew change” clauses in contracts and the permission of crew changes even while the charterer’s cargo is onboard or at alternative ports. Efforts must also be made to minimize the travel or identity documents required of seafarers in transit countries or streamline and digitize the process by which these can be obtained. And of course, priority vaccination must continue.

Promoting the welfare of seafarers should be particularly important for the Philippines. There are more than  half a million active Filipino seafarers deployed overseas, and another 50,000 working domestically. We remain one of the leading providers of officers and manpower for ships, and our primary obligation to those we often refer to as modern-day heroes is clear:

We shall not abandon them.

SUEZ CANAL
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