The failure to treat seafarers as keyworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on seafarers. Massive decreases in shore leave and onshore medical treatment are being accompanied by inordinate periods of service on board contrary to rights of seafarers under the Maritime Labour Convention. This leads to chronic fatigue. And that exposes the safety of crews and the protection of the marine environment to much greater risks.
These concerns are now in sharp focus in the face of a spate of recent grim casualties. On 2 September 2020, the Panamanian-registered vessel, Gulf Livestock 1, was tragically lost with around 40 crew members and 5867 cattle in Typhoon Maysak. This news came as firefighting crews from Sri Lanka and India were working to put out a large blaze aboard the Panamanian-registered oil. One Filipino crew member died and one was injured in the engine room explosion that sparked the fire.
Whilst it has been reported that there is no risk of the ship leaking oil into the ocean, the outcome was not so fortunate for the Panamanian-registered bulk carrier, Wakashio, that ran aground on a coral reef on 25 July 2020 offshore of Pointe d’Esny, south of Mauritius. The ship began to leak fuel oil in the following weeks and broke apart in mid-August. An estimated 1000 tonnes of oil spilled into the ocean in what was called by some scientists the worst environmental disaster in Mauritius. And the incident took a fatal turn when a tugboat involved in the oil spill response collided with a barge in bad weather, killing two of the tug’s crew members. The Government of Mauritius has faced nationwide protests for lack of transparency and accountability. So far it seems that their most significant response has been to arrest the captain, who is now facing charges of “endangering safe navigation” under the country’s Piracy and Maritime Violence Act. And the chief officer is also facing similar charges.
Jacqueline Smith, the ITF Maritime Coordinator, and Dave Heindel, Chairman of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, have previously repeatedly warned against the toxic affects of COVID-19, fatigue and safety at sea. They said: “Seafarers are now at risk of being caught in a perfect storm of exhaustion from extended employment agreements, increasing numbers of accidents and maritime casualties and unfair criminal investigations. All this may lead to scapegoating which cannot be allowed to happen”.
The spotlight should be on how the industry responds to these recent maritime casualties. Is COVID-19 playing a role in here? Will there be investigations – as mandatorily required under the IMO Code for Safety Investigations – so lessons can be learned to prevent the tragic loss of seafarers’ lives? These maritime casualties should re-ignite the debate about how serious the industry is about reducing the number of reported shipping incidents and tackling slow or non-existent investigations into maritime casualties, one of the industry’s most notorious safety shortcomings.
If there ever was a time for fair treatment of seafarers, that time is now.