The International Maritime Organization estimates that 400,000 seafarers from across the globe are now working beyond their contractual period on ships, a trend that could take a toll on the crew’s mental health. 

The LR survey showed that 25% of respondents answering: “strongly disagree” “disagree” and “somewhat disagree” as to whether they felt they were performing an essential role during the pandemic. 

International Maritime Organization, International Labour Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization issued a joint statement on the designation of seafarers and air personnel as key workers in May 2020.  

As of mid-August, 42 countries recognised seafarers as key workers.  

LR's senior principal human factors consultant, Jo Stokes said: “For the rest of the countries to do so, there is a need for further political and public pressure to be placed on the remaining countries." 

Mid-year, India, the Philippines, Dubai and Singapore, were among the minority of countries that re-opened their ports to allow crew change. Australia has gone further, detaining ships whose crew have worked beyond their contractual period. 

However, such actions are not happening on a large scale, leading some seafarers to feel cast aside by governments. 

One survey respondent wrote: “I feel abandoned by my own government”. Others wrote “Shipping industry is strong enough to speak with governments and IMO and ask for urgent crew changes authorisation”. 

One seafarer said: “I am in a prison with no any exact date of releasing (sic).” Another wrote: “We work for each and every one of you to have food, water, fuel, cars etc. We need support in this tough times, but we were forgotten and abandoned by everybody (sic). At times, see [the] chief engineer barely going up to his cabin.” 

In May, the IMO issued a 12-step ‘road map’ to its 174 member states, providing governments with recommended protocols to free seafarers from COVID-19-related movement restrictions, by granting exemptions for them to join or leave ships. 

ICS secretary general Guy Platten said then, “The problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex. So, we have stepped up and done the homework and developed the protocols. We are now working with governments to implement this roadmap. 

“Seafarers continue to work really hard, day in day out and far away from loved ones, but if we are not able to free our seafarers from their COVID-19 lockdown we could start to see disruption to trade and, more importantly, we increase the risk of accident and occurrences of mental health issues. Putting this off is no longer an option.” 

These efforts went largely unheeded and the situation was not helped by COVID-19 outbreaks on merchant ships. In September, Hong Kong, which had initially allowed crew change, imposed a suspension after a COVID-19 outbreak on the container ship MSC Flavia in China, as the disease was detected on a few seafarers that joined the vessel in the territory. 

Governments are understandably concerned and are reluctant to re-open their borders, but the industry is pushing on to resolve the crew change crisis, and shippers have joined in. 

In September, consumer goods giants Unilever and Procter & Gamble, as well as hypermarket chain Carrefour and beer maker Heineken, signed an open letter to United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres, calling for measures to allow more crew changes at ports, ensure the safety of overworked seafarers and ensure that supply chains do not use forced labour.