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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: How Covid-19 created floating prisons

Many seafarers are trapped on vessels, unable to go home -- a situation that threatens to turn into a humanitarian crisis

Update : 09 Apr 2021, 12:35 PM

The crew change crisis caused by Covid-19 restrictions continues to cause challenges, despite some improvement in the numbers.

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been forced to work long beyond their contracted time.

However, the maritime sector has continued to deliver the vital supplies that people need. Seafarers have worked tirelessly, at the heart of this trade, to keep goods flowing. Despite difficulties with port access, repatriation, crew changes, and more, there can be no denying that seafarers have gone beyond the call of duty.

It is estimated that there are now 400,000 seafarers trapped working aboard vessels, and an equal number unemployed at home and unable to relieve them.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has slammed world’s governments’ inaction to alleviate the crew change crisis, declaring that current Covid-19 border and travel restrictions risk creating an epidemic of forced labour and modern slavery, as seafarers are increasingly forced to stay onboard working against their will.

ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton, at one point, said: “It is deeply shameful that we have reached the unfortunate six-month mark in this crisis, with no end in sight. By not giving seafarers pragmatic exemptions as key workers to get to and from ships, governments are consigning seafarers to being slaves on what many call their ‘floating prisons.’”

Stephen Cotton also said the ITF had been working with major corporations who were deeply concerned about the risks to their supply chain if seafarers cannot be changed and relieved by fresh crew.

Due to the Covid situation, the cost of crew changes is a major challenge for the shipping industry nowadays. Importantly, shipping organizations are looking at many ways to mitigate some of these crew change cost increases, including increasing contract periods, vessel diversion, and enhanced forward planning. 

A massive number are working to move crew changes to what are regarded as “easy” ports with fewer Covid-19 restrictions in place, better protocols to allow seafarers to travel, and sufficient connecting flight capacity.

The situation continues to constitute a humanitarian crisis that threatens not only seafarers’ health and wellbeing, but also the safety of navigation and the uninterrupted flow of the global supply chain. Policies or practices that prevent or inhibit safe, regular crew changes should be revised or eliminated.

Lastly, the role of seafarers is crucial to helping the world overcome the pandemic by ensuring the continuity of trade flows, especially the essential goods such as food, medical equipment, and other vital supplies. The onus is thus upon us to safeguard their rights and resolve the crew change crisis as soon as possible. 

Masuk Bejeta is Assistant Second Engineer, 47th Batch, Bangladesh Marine Academy, Chittagong.

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