The welfare of seafarers globally is at risk as a majority of countries will not facilitate normal crew changes and the movement of seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada can and should be more vocal on the world stage to help resolve this dire situation. The Government of Canada has proven that it understands the importance of supporting workers, including seafarers, and now it must leverage its presence on the world stage to implement solutions globally. The solutions are well known and now is the time for leaders, including Canada, to stand-up and demand that they be achieved.
Thousands upon thousands of seafarers’ contracts expired on June 15 after having been extended to address the impacts of COVID-19. The global pandemic resulted in border closures, complete air travel disruption, and an overriding fear that has kept seafarers onboard ships without periodic crew changes that happen normally all over the world. While borders were closed and nations dealt with protecting their populations, seafarers continued to support the movement of goods and people all over the world, including moving critical products to support the fight against COVID-19. More often than not, this meant that seafarers were extending their contracts onboard ships well beyond anything that might considered normal.
The major unions representing seafarers around the world are now saying enough is enough, and will support seafarers in leaving ships whenever and wherever it is possible and requested. This change in approach was not unexpected, nor was it a first choice. In fact, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has worked closely with major employer associations like the International Chamber of Shipping, and with bodies of the United Nations such as the International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization to develop practical solutions. In Canada, the Chamber of Shipping engaged with the ITF to develop protocols for crew changes and to advise the Federal Government on policy options that would support seafarers and trade. The Government of Canada responded positively and has been a leader globally in developing pragmatic solutions such as identifying seafarers as critical workers that can travel less impeded to and from Canada. Canada must now remove immigration and travel barriers in order to support timely and predictable crew changes.
Despite the best of intentions in Canada, this is a global challenge that requires a global solution. Seafarers must be identified as essential workers everywhere and have the mobility to move between ports and different countries. If it does not happen really soon, it is highly probable that seafarers will begin to leave ships without replacements. Without replacements, ships may be stranded in and near ports, unable to meet minimum crewing requirements that are in place to ensure a sufficient level of safety, exposing the hidden crisis facing trade. For seafarers that choose to remain in a ship, they could face an increasingly stressful environment due to their extended presence without breaks or shore leave; a tenuous situation that has already caused increased instances of distress and deteriorating mental health amongst seafarers.
It is far too easy to take for granted that items we order online or pick-up locally magically appear whenever we input our credit card details into an app or swipe a debit card at the local big box store. We have become accustomed to the convenience of shopping on demand, even during a global pandemic. Likewise, a Canadian producer, mine, or manufacturing plant can usually arrange for a product to be shipped anywhere in the world and trust that it will find its final destination more or less on-time, compliments of a complex transportation network that includes commercial marine shipping. All of this is possible because seafarers facilitate global trade.