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seafarers.jpg Photo: Marcus Hand

Deaf ears to seafarers’ pleas

If you ignore a problem, maybe it will go away. In the way that the seafaring community continues to be treated by responsible governments, this would seem to sum up much of the collective attitude of the authorities around the world, faced with requests to land or exchange ships’ crews.

Of course, it is so much easier to deny such requests, with a suggestion that the shipping company tries somewhere else, at the next port perhaps? What are a few more days, or weeks?

There is also a nasty ring of cynicism and exploitation in the prevailing view.

- We are delighted for your ships to come to our port, bringing us the goods without which we would be in real trouble, and carrying off our exports to market all around the world. We don’t mind admitting we depend upon these argosies of trade for the flourishment of our economy in the post-pandemic world.

- But because of Covid-19, that universal excuse for everything, including the suspension of decency and humanity, it is not possible to exchange crews in this port. We realise that this is forcing your crew members to work weeks or even months over their contracts and that their replacements need access. We understand that this might make the ship seriously in breach of international maritime conventions. We have taken on board your earnest injunctions about the fatigue suffered by your employees, but our own health requirements over-ride everything else. Besides, the fact there are no air services that can facilitate the exchange puts the ball firmly in somebody else’s court.

-No, your crew members may not have shore leave to go to the shops, the doctor, dentists or other health professionals. The fact that your ship is said to be free of the disease and the deepsea voyage to our port has occupied many weeks is immaterial No, they may not go and play football on the dock. They must stay on board their ship at all times, facilitate its cargo handling, albeit with appropriate social distancing and hygiene measures, and depart on schedule. Your agent is free to arrange for any fuel or consumables to be delivered to the ship, so our suppliers will in no way be disadvantaged.

It is a bit like arguing with a computer, that always says “no!”  A computer that is completely oblivious to the fact that these vital ships which everyone depends upon are driven around the world by human beings, who cannot be expected to be treated like 200,000 Flying Dutchmen, doomed to circle the seas forever. Certainly, at enormous effort and considerable cost, hard-working companies have been able to relieve some of their employees, but they succeed in the face of often rock-like resistance and endless difficulties placed in their way.

Because it is always someone else’s problem, which can be shunted off elsewhere, there is absolutely no need to consider any of the consequences. There have been suicides apparently provoked by the absolute inability of a distressed seafarer to return home. There have been endless warnings about the risks to safety, caused by exhausted individuals undertaking safety-critical tasks and getting them wrong. Only when a few brave souls decided that they have had enough, and the ship will not be leaving the berth without crew reliefs, as we have seen in Australia of late, might the intransigent authorities be persuaded to think a little deeper about their attitude. One would like to think that there will be no victimisation of these courageous crews, but one wouldn’t put money on it.

When this is all over (or we have learned to live with this disease) I wonder what seafarers might think about their treatment. More to the point, what might potential seafarers, who might have thought that there was a place in this essential industry for them make of those who treated the current workforce like lepers. It won’t exactly spur them on to a maritime career, will it? I thought of that crass old creature Nancy Astor, first woman in the British House of Commons, who blithely suggested that seafarers should be required to wear distinguishing marks on their clothes to warn that they might be transmitters of venereal disease. Some attitudes don’t change.

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