Nova Scotia

As pandemic stretches on, concern for stranded seafarers grows

The mental well-being and safety of seafarers stuck on ships during the pandemic is reaching a breaking point as the months stretch on, warns an inspector in Halifax. He says he's heard from workers who've been on board for up to 15 months.

Some workers have been stuck on cargo ships for up to 15 months, says inspector

Karl Risser, the Atlantic inspector at The International Transport Workers’ Federation in Halifax, is worried more marine accidents could happen if exhausted crew members can't get off ships. (Karl Risser)

The mental well-being and safety of seafarers stuck aboard ships during the pandemic is reaching a breaking point as the months stretch on, warns an inspector in Halifax. 

Some 300,000 seafarers are trapped aboard cargo ships and can't disembark or get home due to COVID-19 border and travel restrictions, according to the International Transport Workers' Federation.

Karl Risser, the federation's inspector in Atlantic Canada, said he's been receiving multiple complaints from crew members.

It's their job to live aboard ships and make sure goods, such as food and personal protective equipment, get safely around the world. 

Some workers have been on the job for 15 months, well past their contracts, which typically last between six and nine months, he said. 

"These are the forgotten heroes of COVID," Risser told CBC's Information Morning this week. "Their governments have forgotten them, everybody's kind of forgotten them, but they're keeping our supply chains going."

Risser, and others who advocate for the rights of seafarers, say COVID-19 has highlighted long-standing problems with the shipping industry, which is complex and highly globalized.

They want Canadians to understand the plight of these "invisible" essential workers, but also warn that solutions to the crisis won't be easy.

Shipping experts and people who work with seafarers say COVID-19 has only highlighted long-standing problems with the shipping industry. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Canada is one of the few countries that's exempted maritime crews from COVID-19 travel restrictions, but the situation in other countries can still leave seafarers trapped on ships in Canadian ports like Halifax and Vancouver.

The majority of seafarers who work on these ships are from China, India and the Philippines. 

"They're very marginalized and isolated workers," Risser said. "Imagine being at work for 11 months with the same 20 people and couldn't leave your office, right?"

He's calling on agencies like Transport Canada to do more to facilitate crew changes, so stranded seafarers can get home and unemployed workers can take their place. 

Canadian exemptions not enough

In March, Transport Canada exempted seafarers from the need to quarantine when travelling in and out of the country, as long as they weren't showing symptoms of the virus. 

In a bulletin issued on June 30, the agency said that seafarers can have four hours of shore leave as long as they follow strict public health protocols.

A spokesperson for the agency said Transport Canada has also been working closely with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to expedite visas for seafarers so that crew changes can take place.

An organization that looks out for the rights of seafarers says 300,000 crew members are stuck on vessels and being treated like slaves because of COVID-19. 8:14

"Canada remains committed to facilitating crew changes and to protecting the rights and dignity of seafarers who are at the frontlines of the present pandemic," the spokesperson said in an email to CBC News. 

But Desai Shan, an assistant professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies the shipping industry, said these policies don't always work in practice due to regulations in other countries. 

A deacon in Vancouver delivers toiletries and food to seafarers onboard bulk carriers. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"On one hand, Canada is offering friendly policies to seafarers, but the practical barriers to arrange flights for these seafarers's crew change would be difficult," she said.

She wants Canada to work with other countries to offer chartered flights so seafarers can get home, and to funnel more money to non-profit organizations that help these vulnerable workers. 

We need to do more, but how much time do we have?​​​​​- Desai Shan, Memorial University

Still, Shan said there's no easy solution when it comes to fixing problems with the shipping industry.

Any progress will require the co-operation of different industries in many countries, some of which don't consider seafarers essential workers.

But she's worried seafarers are running out of time. 

"The price is very high," Shan said. "Usually it's the front-line seafarers who are taking this price and who are sacrificing themselves. We need to do more, but how much time do we have?"

Getting supplies to crew members

Organizations like the Mission to Seafarers in Halifax continue to help stranded crew members during the pandemic. 

Joseph Loot, assistant manager with the mission, said there have been several cargo ships in port in recent months. 

Crew members aren't able to disembark and visit the mission like they typically would, and Loot can't board the ships, so he's been delivering supplies, like groceries and SIM cards, to the bottom of the gangway.  

Loot speaks Filipino and has been able to check in with seafarers from the Philippines to see how they're holding up. 

"It's something different for them when they speak with somebody in their own language, particularly somebody who is not a crew member," Loot said. 

Risser recently helped a seafarer from the Philippines return home from a vessel that was in Halifax. The man got off the ship on June 28 and it took him 23 days to arrive back in his hometown because he had to quarantine along the way, Risser said.  

Thousands more crew members haven't been so lucky, and there's no guarantee the seafarer from the Philippines will be able to work on that ship again. 

"It's unbelievable what these people are going through," said Risser.

With files from CBC's Information Morning

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