The high, human cost of global shipping in the pandemic: Sailors stuck at sea for months

Sailors have been stuck on shipping vessels for months after their contracts expired, and while the shipping industry blames COVID-19 protocols, the seafarers' union says more must be done to help them.

COVID-19 amplifies issues that have plagued the shipping industry for years

Second officer Rolly Pague was stuck on board a shipping vessel for months after his contract ended. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have suffered a similar fate as COVID-19 restrictions made it tough to get off the ships and onto dry land. (Submitted by Rolly Pague)

For 11 months, Rolly Pague was stranded at sea, stuck on a giant shipping vessel feeding insatiable global demand sparked by the pandemic.

The 31-year-old was unable to get home and see his family as COVID-19 protocols made it difficult for crews to get off their ships and return home to the Philippines.

Pague's contract ended after six months, but at each port he and the other crew members weren't allowed to step off the ship. As they approached each stop, they would build up hope that this time they'd be able to leave.

"When they say that you will be cancelled, you feel like your heart is broken," said Pague. "You already have some expectations that you will be going home with your family again."

COVID-19 has amplified and accelerated issues that have plagued the shipping industry for years. Crews were already being asked to work longer contracts, ships already struggled with worker safety issues and resupply of basic provisions was sometimes seen as an afterthought.

Pague signed up for a six-month contract, but was stuck on his ship for nearly a year with no idea how or when he could get home because of the pandemic. (Submitted by Rolly Pague)

From the very first days of the pandemic, the business of shipping has been clobbered. As billions of people around the world found themselves stuck at home, demand for products surged.

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Those first lockdowns in China hit some of the biggest shipping ports in Asia. Then there was a sudden shortage of containers at major European ports. The next thing you know, the Ever Given was stuck in the Suez Canal, causing a global backlog as vessels were forced to decide if they should re-route and go around Africa to deliver their cargo.

"You have a little bit of a perfect storm, with little things all happening together," said Opher Baron, a professor of operations management at the Rotman School of Business in Toronto.

Rolly Pague's ship navigated that storm for months. It delivered fertilizer, grains, coal and aluminum to ports around the world. They unloaded their wares all over Europe, South America and the U.S.

Then, in June, as the ship was approaching the port of Vancouver, Pague and his crewmates heard from a contact at the International Transport Workers Federation. The union believed they could help the stranded seafarers.

Peter Lahay, a co-ordinator with the International Transport Workers Federation in Vancouver, helped get stranded crew members off their ships and back home. (Submitted by Peter Lahay)

"By the time we arrived in Vancouver, it was still touch and go," he said. And after so many disappointments, the crew was careful not to get too hopeful.

On shore, Peter Lahay, a co-ordinator with the International Transport Workers Federation in Vancouver, was frantically working the phones and coming up with a plan. He had been doing this throughout the pandemic, so he knew he had to get a bit lucky to find enough time to get the crews off.

"So the ship comes in and if they're going to be loading grain, I have to pray for rain because they don't load grain in the rain."

That bit of extra time might be just enough to get a deal done to allow the crew to get home. 

Getting a crew off the ship requires visas. During the pandemic, it also requires special exemptions to public health measures. A new crew has to be available and able to fly in and replace the outgoing crew.

That means the shipping company has to co-operate. Transport Canada has to fulfil its obligations. The local health authorities have to scramble and show some flexibility.

Pague was relieved and happy to get on shore for the first time in 11 months. He flew home to the Philippines a few days later to see his wife and children. (Submitted by Rolly Pague)

Lahay keeps the maritime labour convention on hand to keep all parties working toward the same goal. That convention sets out the rules countries, ports and shipping companies must abide by within the shipping industry.

"It's a really difficult situation. I'm constantly having raging battles to enforce this convention."

But that week in June, everything came together. And as Pague's ship came to port, he was greeted with the news that he'd finally be able to step onto dry land and eventually head home to see his wife and kids.

"To be honest, I felt so relieved and happy. When you get off that gangway and look up at the ship, all your responsibilities, everything is gone," he said.

"No more wakeup calls, no more telephone rings in the late night. When you sleep and you close your eyes, you aren't still thinking about the job.

"I'm just so happy man, I can't even express," he said. "I want to hug my children. I want to see my family."

Satellite image of the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal
A satellite image shows the Suez Canal blocked by the stranded container ship Ever Given in Egypt on March 25, 2021. (Roscosmos/Reuters)

Pague was taken to a hotel in Vancouver while he waited for travel arrangements to be made. 

Lahay went back to work. Days later, as Pague and his crewmates headed for home, Lahay was dealing with three new cases. One vessel had a crew that needed to be repatriated. Another had an injured seafarer. A third ship had run out of drinking water.

"That crew wrote to us and asked if we could help them with getting fresh water aboard," he wrote in an email. "They informed us that while loading at Portland they filled the fresh water tanks by pumping in the Columbia River."

On a river sits a cargo ship docked at a port with colorful storage boxes on the ship and on land. Red cranes are pulling cargo off the ship. In the water you can see small boats and other cargo vessels with small blue cranes. In the background you can see buildings at the base of some mountains.
The Port of Vancouver is pictured — sea cans and all — on March 4, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It's hard to find a historical precedent to rival the current disruption in the shipping industry in such a short time. The Second World War and a surge in piracy off the coast of Africa in the early 2000s are the most common precedents experts point to.

And all that disruption has driven up costs.

"This is all a chain reaction that is getting worse because of some other disturbances like changing consumption patterns," said Baron.

The cost of a single container has skyrocketed this past year.

The Freightos Baltic Index measures the daily price movements of large containers in 12 major maritime lanes. The index has shot up nearly 250 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic.

(CBC News)

And the troubles for shippers aren't likely to go away any time soon.

"The after-effects will be with us a few more years," said Baron.

In fact, some shippers say the disruptions are getting worse. Two new issues are coming at the industry, fast.

The first is vaccines. If you thought getting crews off the ships was hard, imagine trying to organize a vaccination program at a bustling port where the priority has always been getting ships back on their way without delay.

Greg Ruhl, CEO of Algoma Central, has been trying to get his crew members vaccinated wherever and whenever they can.

"Right now, it's grassroots. We just call the community and say, please, is there any way you can take the crew or even half the crew and get them their first dose," he said.

He had a crew in a U.S. port that asked for a few hours delay to get into a local vaccination clinic.

Ruhl said in a way, the vaccination issues are an extension of the problems with getting crews off ships. He said in a world so dependent on fast shipping, crews on these vessels should be thought of as essential service workers.

'Unique lifestyle'

"We didn't do as well as we should have as an industry or a society to think about sailors and their unique lifestyle."

Meanwhile, Ruhl said yet another major disruption is coming for Canadian shipping companies, this time involving federal rules around what's called "ballast water."

Ships take water on board and dump it out to control stability after unloading cargo. But ballast water is also linked to a sharp surge in invasive species.

Ottawa has ordered all ships to upgrade water treatment systems by 2030.

Ruhl said the way that order is being implemented means newer Canadian ships have to upgrade years ahead of older U.S. ships.

The cost of a single shipping container has skyrocketed over the past year. (MOLPIX/Shutterstock)

"Given all the other things we're facing with the pandemic, vaccinations and challenges of the shipping industry, we didn't need this and it's a gut punch," Ruhl said.

This whole year and a half has been incredibly trying on the entire industry. The disruptions are real and the challenges for companies are indisputable.

But the International Transport Workers Federation, which represents seafarers, says as many as 200,000 sailors remain stuck on their vessels and unable to get home. Vaccinations are starting to happen, but the industry remains painfully behind the global curve.

Pague, right, says he will look for more work in the shipping industry after he gets some time with his wife and kids. (Submitted by Rolly Pague)

"There's ships in our habour today that are absolutely rotten," said Lahay. "Crew members are complaining to us about lack of fall protection, lack of respirators, getting sick on board, not enough fresh food."

Lahay said the shipping business is all about logistics — any company that can make money in this industry has the expertise and the ability to treat its workers better.

He said last week marked the Day of the Seafarer and shipping companies around the world were going to have their ships blow their horns to mark the occasion. But he thinks they should be focused on making sure workers like Rolly Pague are safe and that their contractual obligations are being met. 

Lahay said everyone needs to play a role in protecting sailors.

"It's a terrible, terrible situation," he said. "It's full of hollow promises and governments that won't do anything about it and consumers that are ambivalent."


Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Subscribe to Peter's newsletter here: Twitter: @armstrongcbc

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