Shore leave critical for physical and mental health of maritime crews

  • Living
  • Monday, 06 Dec 2021

World trade would not work without seafarers. Photos: dpa

The Filipino crew clearly had something big to celebrate as they ordered pizza and red wine to be delivered to Welcome, a club for seafarers in the German port city of Bremerhaven.

Usually, crews head to the club to buy chocolate and phone cards or go online but when volunteer Antje Zeller asked them what the occasion was, she learned it was their first time ashore in months.

“The longest stretch they had spent on board was eight months,” Zeller says.

That is something the volunteer has heard time and again since the pandemic broke out.

“Some shipping companies don’t let seafarers off the ship, they keep locking them up even if they’ve been vaccinated.”

Antje Zeller is concerned about seafarers’ welfare. Here she is pictured at the Welcome club in Bremerhaven.Antje Zeller is concerned about seafarers’ welfare. Here she is pictured at the Welcome club in Bremerhaven.

Susana Ventura, who works for the German trade union Verdi, says some sea freight companies forbid crews to go ashore for fear they will return to the ship infected with Covid-19 and cause an outbreak.

“This is unacceptable and legally questionable,” says Ventura. If a country allows maritime crews to go ashore, then they must be permitted to do so, she says.

It is important for seafarers’ mental health that crews are allowed to see other sights beyond the ship and their colleagues, says Zeller.

The Bremerhaven club has now started offering vaccines to seafarers, a step that can lead to more freedom for many. There was a rush in demand on the first day, says Zeller. “They are totally happy about the vaccinations.”

But for others, even being inoculated against the virus does not necessarily mean they are automatically permitted to go ashore.

Other German ports are also vaccinating maritime crews, amid fears that not enough shipping workers have received the shot.

Some 20% of seafarers worldwide are vaccinated, according to estimates by the German Shipowners’ Association – a level that is far too low, according to a spokesperson for the group.

Hapag Lloyd, a major Germany-based shipping company, says it does not support banning crew from going ashore although it does recommend workers stay on the ships even when they are docked.

“Any contact with the outside is a danger,” says spokesperson Nils Haupt. The company does not allow any other people to board the vessels, either.

Keep them happy

Captains, meanwhile, are instructed to do everything they can to keep their crews happy whether that means providing music, barbecuing a suckling pig or even setting up a football tournament. Vessels also have a kiosk on board, the spokesperson says.

Beyond the mental health benefits, shore leave is also critical for the physical health of maritime crews, says Bianca Froemming, vice president of the Association of German Captains and Ship’s Officers.

Shipping workers gather at the Bremerhaven club for relief from lengthy periods spent at sea. Shipping workers gather at the Bremerhaven club for relief from lengthy periods spent at sea.

Crews cannot be guaranteed medical care if they may not disembark and no doctors are allowed on board, she says.

Shipping companies are not always to blame. In some countries in Asia, regulations forbid seafarers from going ashore – even, occasionally, in the case of a medical emergency, says Froemming. That is a breach of the International Maritime Labour Convention.

Froemming, now working in business, has also spent a long time at sea herself. She spoke of an officer who suffered a stroke but had to wait more than two days for treatment as his ship was not initially allowed to enter the next port due to the current entry regulations. Worse still, seafarers are often forced to remain on board their ships beyond the end of their contracts due to the pandemic, if crew changeovers fail to work out.

Too long on the ship

Legally, seafarers may only stay on board a boat for a maximum of 11 months under the Maritime Labour Convention. “One of my former colleagues was on board for 20 months,” says Froemming, adding that this is not a rare one-off case.

In July, 250,000 seafarers worldwide were waiting to leave their ships at the end of their assignment, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Reasons for the delays included their home countries not allowing them to enter because of the pandemic, the seafarers being unable to get the visas they needed, or the relief ports imposing travel restrictions on certain seafarers.

“In many countries there are travel restrictions for seafarers based on their nationality,” says Froeming, meaning it is far easier for a German seafarer to travel than for an Indian seafarer.

The situation was worse in 2020 when the pandemic first broke out, according to Ventura.

Nonetheless, shipping companies and trade unions alike are calling for the same conditions and equal treatment of seafarers, whatever their nationality, as essential workers.

World trade would not work without them, says Ventura, with 80% of goods transported by sea, according to the IMO.

“Designating seafarers ‘key workers’ must not be merely symbolic,” says Ventura. – dpa/Janet Binder

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