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Prisoners at sea’: stuck on board cargo ships, crews find their mental well-being under threat
They  man the merchant ships that keep global trade flowing, but coronavirus  restrictions mean thousands of seafarers are unable to return home.  After months at sea, stress, fatigue and time away from loved ones is  taking its toll.
Kate Whitehead                 
Captain Bejoy Kannan, of Wallem Group. Photo: courtesy of Captain Bejoy Kannan

Kannan  stood his ground and refused to let anyone on board while he contacted  his ship’s manage­ment. This was a bold move. Chartering an oil tanker  costs tens of thousands of dollars a day, so every hour lost eats into  profits. Fortunately, the Wallem Group is one of the more supportive  ship management firms and it negotiated that only eight men would come  aboard, all wearing face masks and gloves, but “[the pilot] was touching  things on the ship”, says Kannan.
“We  were worried that if the gloves were infected, they might infect some  of the equipment. We will only know in 10 days or more. We’ve been  checking the crew’s temperatures daily.”
As  the head of his household in India, Kannan feels unable to protect his  elderly parents. His crew are also worried about their families and  Kannan does his best to reassure them and keep up morale. He speaks in a  calm, measured tone, but even so the strain is apparent – he has an  infection in his left eye, perhaps the result of stress, and he has been  speaking to the fleet’s psychologist.
Sailing  to Singapore, Kannan plans to divert the ship to India to allow  disembarkation of Indian nationals. If that is not permitted, “Very soon  we are coming to the stage where we have to go on strike,” he says.  “How long can we endure it? People want the cargo but what about the  sea­farers? Everyone talks of the doctors, the army and the police, but I  don’t think people even know we exist.”
There are more than  50,000 merchant vessels in the world, including 5,150 container ships,  each with an average crew of 22 persons – that makes for a work­force of  well over one million people, responsible for deliver­ing 90 per cent  of the world’s goods stocking our shops. These men (and some women) are  continuing to work seven days a week through the pandemic, their  contracts extended because they are unable to disembark their ships.
“We  all recognise the heroism of the health workers going the extra mile,”  says Bjørn Højgaard, chief executive of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, a  Hong Kong-based firm that manages about 600 vessels. “But the  coronavirus has also meant the normal turnover of seafarers is not  taking place, or is in limited numbers.”
Seafarers’  contracts range from four to nine months, depending on their rank. A  ship’s master (or captain) usually has a four-month contract while lower  ranked seafarers can expect about eight months. Anglo-Eastern has  around 15,000 seafarers at sea currently, and if travel restric­tions  continue, Højgaard estimates that 23 per cent of them will be working on  extended contracts by the end of this month.
“We  shouldn’t feel sorry for the seafarers, we should celebrate them,  praise them for what they are doing,” says Højgaard. “They are proud of  what they are doing, fulfilling a service to the world.”

Kannan (left) on board the China Dawn with a Brazilian pilot and a crew  member on April 11. Photo: courtesy of Captain Bejoy Kannan

But  extended contracts and the uncertainty surround­ing corona­virus are  placing increasing pressure on the mental health of crew members.
“In  the long run, if people can’t get relief and go home, they will  eventually burn out and be incapable of doing their jobs,” says  Højgaard. “The longer this drags on without people being relieved, the  more pressure will build up and, at some point, that pressure might boil  over.”
There  is an increasing awareness in the maritime indus­try of mental health. A  study by Yale University, published last October, spoke to 1,572  seafarers of different ranks around the world and found that within the  two weeks prior to being surveyed, 20 per cent had contemplated suicide  or self-harm, 25 per cent had suffered depression and 17 per cent had  experienced anxiety. Key factors were violence and bullying, a lack of  job satisfaction and not feeling valued.
David  Heindel, chairman of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust charity that commissioned  the study, said in November: “The more we talk about mental health, the  more we reduce the stigma associated with it. This report really helps  us to understand the contributing factors and provides a basis for  demanding some fundamental changes in the way the shipping industry  operates.”
“Then  coronavirus hits and what happens is that the stress level goes up –  worry about getting infected, worry about family back home, worry about  when they get into port will they be infected by people on shore,” says  Frank Coles, chief executive of Wallem Group.

Captain Rajnish Shah. Photo: courtesy of Captain Rajnish Shah

Coles  tells of a Chinese captain who wanted to dis­embark at a Chinese port  and threatened to discharge his cargo if he couldn’t go home. That  captain was eventually persuaded to do one more voyage. And another  captain, concerned about his crew getting infected, refused to allow  Singaporean officials to board.
“Crews  are becoming more concerned and upset, afraid of being infected by what  they see as the dirty side of being on shore,” says Coles.
Captain  Rajnish Shah has stood up for his crew, demand­­ing that their lives  not be compromised for the sake of profit. When he boarded the bulk  carrier Tomini Destiny on a four-month contract on August 28 last year  the world was a very different place. An error surrounding his expec­ted  relief meant he and some crew members were not able to disembark in  Switzerland and return home at the begin­ning of the year, but he took  it in his stride.
“We  thought it was a one-off thing,” says Shah. “We said we have to move  on, we had an important Gulf of Aden transit coming up and had to take  precautions against pirates in Somalia.”
He  and his crew succeeded in avoiding the pirates, but there was more  danger ahead. As the Tomini Destiny approached Chittagong port, in  Bangladesh, Shah made plans with the ship’s owner for the cargo to be  offloaded using trains, avoiding the need for dock workers. But when the  ship reached port at the end of March those plans had come to nothing  and 60 local workers demanded to come on board.
“Under  the situation of the pandemic that was not acceptable because the  exposure risk to the crew was huge,” says Shah. “Bangladesh had also  gone into lockdown.”

Shah and his crew on board the Tomini Destiny. Photo: courtesy of Captain Rajnish Shah

A  week-long stand-off ensued, during which the crew closed the hatches  and rigged up razor wire to prevent access to the ship. Shah reached out  to non-government organisation Human Rights at Sea, requesting better  protection for his crew during cargo operations in port. His  determination paid off and on April 6 the personal protective equipment  (PPE) came through and the local workers used it while offloading the  cargo.
The  incident marked a critical point in the pandemic – a ship’s captain  invoking Master’s authority (under the International Safety Management  Code) in the interests of his crew, bringing him into direct conflict  with the owners’ interests.
“I’m  a master with 16 years’ experience and this is the first time I’ve ever  had to exercise Master’s authority over owners to protect my crew,”  says Shah. “The owners are in it for commercial interests, every day’s  delay costs them. But the whole world is in turmoil. It’s unfortunate  when the concerns of the crew are ignored for the sake of profit.  Someone needs to stand up.”
The  issue has now been brought to the attention of the Indian government  through the Directorate General of Shipping, the Indian High Commission  in Bangladesh, port authorities and unions.

We have seen a real  lack of information, either under-reporting or negligence in reporting  the issues. They just want to be told the truth, people can deal with  the truth       David Hammond, founder, Human Rights at Sea

David Hammond, founder of Human Rights at Sea, says the lack of access to good-quality PPE is a key issue.
“You  rarely see masters taking such stands because they can get blacklisted.  But masters are becoming more vocal and they come to organisations like  ours to fight their corner. The master isn’t just protecting his crew,  he’s protecting the global sea lanes,” says Hammond.
Human  Rights at Sea has a number of WhatsApp groups it uses to keep in touch  with seafarers of all ranks. Since March 22, there has been a surge in  demand for PPE on these informal channels, as well as in queries about  when they can sign off.
“We  have seen a real lack of information, either under-reporting or  negligence in reporting the issues,” says Hammond. “They just want to be  told the truth, people can deal with the truth. A lot of the crew are  saying, ‘We just want to know what is happening.’”
Kishore  Rajvanshy is managing director of Hong Kong-based Fleet Management,  which manages about 520 ships. Before taking a management role, he was a  seafarer and served as chief engineer.
“What  keeps me awake at night is worrying how long this will last,” says  Rajvanshy. “For staff on board, one or two months [of extended  contracts] is OK, but eventually there has to be a way to relieve  people.”

Mental health is  still something that people neglect and that is stigmatised. It’s  important that people on land understand the pressures and issues that  seafarers face so they can be better supported       Rini Mathew, clinical psychologist

Fleet  Management is giving crew members who have their contracts extended a  25 per cent pay rise as well as an increased daily internet data  allowance, so they can keep in contact with family.
Five  months ago, the firm set up a dedicated division, Fleet Care, staffed  by a team of eight and offering support to seafarers, from managing  grievances to reaching out to family members to celebrate birthdays. On  March 23, with the support of the charity Sailors’ Society, it launched a  24/7 helpline, Crisis Response Network, to offer confidential advice  and support.
“We’ve  already had quite a number of people use the helpline, about 25 people  in one week,” says Captain Randhir Mahadik, the Mumbai-based head of  Fleet Care. “Our ships are multilingual, so the support is available in  Mandarin, Tagalog, many Indian languages and others.”
With  an average of 22 men on each of the 520 ships, those 25 calls represent  a fraction of the fleet’s staff, but also a turning point in addressing  seafarers’ mental-health needs.
Rini  Mathew, Fleet Care’s full-time clinical psychologist, says that when  she tells her mental-health colleagues that she works with seafarers  they are usually surprised and unaware of the specific challenges that  they face working away from home.

Rini Mathew, a clinical psychologist. Photo: Fleet Care

“Mental  health is still something that people neglect and that is stigmatised,”  says Mathew, who is also based in Mumbai. “It’s important that people  on land understand the pressures and issues that seafarers face so they  can be better supported.”
She  offers one-on-one counselling sessions for Fleet Management’s crews,  but the logistics of remote therapy can be challenging. Confidentiality  is the cornerstone of the therapeutic relationship, but seafarers often  have to take the session by phone in a ship’s communal area, which means  the captain must ask others to leave the space.
“And  then there’s the challenge of the person on the vessel talking to a  complete stranger who they can’t even see,” she says. “It takes time to  build that relationship and trust. But often these people are reaching  their threshold – they can’t take it any more, they need help.”
Problems  can quickly escalate in the enclosed environ­ment of a ship, so Mathew  usually offers a session once every four days, rather than weekly, and  follows up by sending psycho-education materials.

A member of the Mission to Seafarers delivers toiletries, snacks and a  SIM card to a Myanmese seafarer aboard the KMTC Qingdao in Hong Kong on  April 22. Photo: Mission to Seafarers

Most  of her sea-bound clients experience depression or anxiety, sometimes a  combination of the two, which is exacerbated by a sense of isolation and  distance from home.
“When  you are working at a stretch for so long it can lead to chronic fatigue  syndrome. Once you start feeling that it often leads to other problems –  not being very active or not being able to do duties well, which can  lead to accidents,” she says.
The  longer the pandemic goes on and contracts are extended, the more  serious fatigue becomes. A typical shift pattern might be to work from  12am to 4am, have eight hours off, and then work from noon to 4pm. Doing  so seven days a week for six to nine months takes a toll. Go beyond  that and tensions mount.
The  Mission to Seafarers is a Christian welfare charity serving merchant  crews around the world. It has operated in Hong Kong since 1863 and  offers a friendly ear to visiting seafarers as well as international  legal advice and coun­selling.
Reverend  Stephen Miller, the mission’s regional director for East Asia, says,  “the Maritime Labour Convention exists because if you work shifts seven  days a week for more than a year then you become fatigued, [suffer]  sensory overload and your mind switches to some­thing else. That’s when  accidents happen – collisions at sea, accidents on board the ship, all  these things happen when people are fatigued.”

This virus is a  great opportunity for us to initiate change and put in procedures to  call on in future, because it will happen again       Tim Huxley, chairman, Mandarin Shipping

Coronavirus  restrictions mean mission staff can no longer go aboard ships in Hong  Kong, so instead they mask up and go as far as the gangplank at Kwai  Chung container port to deliver newspapers, toiletries, snacks and  entertainment such as pre-recorded football matches.
“It  makes them feel more human if we can buy snacks from their home  counties, India or the Philippines, anything that can give them a bit of  comfort,” says Miller, whose mission is in touch with thousands of  seafarers through Facebook and WhatsApp, and is trying to maintain calm.
“It’s  a pretty lonely and isolated life for a seafarer, but they are even  more isolated now. There’s only so much you can do before people start  losing it.”
Tim  Huxley, chairman of Hong Kong-based Mandarin Shipping, says seafarers  have to be seen as essential workers and an accommodation must be made  to allow them on and off ships. “This means we need to get various  stakeholders in the business – the International Maritime Organisation,  the United Nations body that oversees ship­ping; the flag states;  immigration; and medical depart­ments in their representative ports – to  work together, which is going to be a groundbreaking move by the  ship­ping industry.
“This  virus is a great opportunity for us to initiate change and put in  procedures to call on in future, because it will happen again. This  experience will allow us to be better prepared next time.”

A seafarer on an OOCL ship with a shipping magazine he received from the  Mission to Seafarers in Hong Kong on April 23. Photo: Mission to  Seafarers

For  Hammond, the solution is “ring-fenced global hub points” for the safe  onload and offload of crew in order to keep global trade flowing.
“People  need to understand that there are 1.4 million to 1.6 million people  moving 90 per cent of the world’s goods,” says Hammond. “If they want  that to continue, we need to support that workforce, which has an  immense impact on all our lives.”
“People  would not get on a plane if they thought the pilot never got off the  plane,” says Wallem’s Coles. “But they are quite happy to let these  [seafarers] sail around for months at a time.”
“If  people want the shipping industry to survive, there should be an  opportunity for us to get off and go home,” says Captain Kannan. “Don’t  only think of commercial gain, spare a thought for us. We are tired and  depressed and want to go home.”

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updated
23 May 2020
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