Plight of Indin Seafarers at times of Covid -19; LET THE VOYAGE OF LIFE SAIL

Arun Wighmal

INTRODUCTION

Throughout the course of history, virus outbreaks have created havoc on humanity, sometimes even changed a course of history. It would be apt to state that epidemics are structurally comparable events wherever they take place across the globe. The outburst of Covid-19 creates a sense of déjà vu” with numerous historical epidemic outbreaks transpired in the sheets of history such as Antonine Plague (A.D. 165-180), Plague of Cyprian: (A.D. 250-271), The Black Death (1346- 1353), The Great Plague of London: 1665-1666 and Spanish flu: 1918- 1920 wherein an estimated 500 million people were affected by the same.[1] As the outbreak of Corona Virus (Covid-19) is putting health facilities of world at a challenging position it is imperative to analyze its impact on maritime industry especially in relation to seafarers who also deserve to be put on the board of savours of mankind in line with other respective state emergency services, medical professionals, armed forces as they set a fortune on civil society to receive essential commodities and medical equipments through a sea route.

That it would not be extraneous to state that the impact which Covid-19 has over the global supply chain is massive in nature which has virtually brought the lives of millions of folks at a standstill and has given indentation to the economical and health system of even major developed nations. However, there are many fields of services who are portraying gladiator’s role against the existing evil, one of which none-other than the community of Seafarers, driven with the passion and sense of service to mankind playing extremely important role in keeping the global supply chain of essential commodities alive and active at the cost of putting themselves at health risk by keeping themselves sail to a voyage with a destination port located in even the hardest hit nations in Europe and North America.

PLIGHTS TO NARRATE

It brings us to a crucially relevant sphere of concern i.e. predicaments faced by class of seamen, it would be apposite to state that as reported by U.K based organisation- Human Rights at Sea many seafarers possess an appalling and gloomy tale to narrate wherein they are cramped to stay within the premises of a vessel sailing or anchoring in the sea even when the period of their employment agreement comes to an end and they are left with no option but to confine their lives on a vessel which has no permission to reach ashore as many governmental authorities have prohibited their entries to their territorial waters.

It is pertinent to note that there are other section of seafarers whose employment service contract period has technically not triggered as it stipulates on the time when he/she boards the vessel and due to existing pandemic they are forced to confine themselves either at a hotel or other places of stay at their own economical standing in a foreign land with very little or no assistance from their employer shipping company and concerned consulate general. It would be really hard to feel the psychological as well as physical agony and trauma they must be going through when their financial sources for sustenance are depleting with darkness of uncertainty hovers over their sleep in an alien land.

It is worth mentioning that the community of active Indian seafarers in global maritime industry at present numbers around 40,000 extensively plays a role of vertebrae which have been overlooked to some extent during these hard times by their respective shipping companies coupled with governmental authorities in terms of non-payment of wages, contract extension without informed consent, lack of medical facility etc. Upon contacting, Mr. Yash Wigh who is a third officer currently sailing near USA narrated his impediments in an unequivocal manner;

“There are several issues concerning seamen on board such as many seafarers whose employment contracts are terminated are forced to stay on vessel with no assurance of wages, moreover such a long period of sailing has its massive impact on the psychological and physical health of seafarer equally burdened with the tension about the well being of their family members who are left with no care-taker behind coupled with no sort of financial assistance provided to them by the concerned shipping company or the governmental authorities.”

“Mr. Yash also stated that his vessel has been continuously sailing and no crew change is happening since February which saved ship owners millions of dollars annually which is supposed to be spent on crew change globally. Such amount shall be allocated for the welfare activities such as providing protection kit, sanitizers and other sanitization equipments coupled with immediate financial assistance to stranded seafarers and their respective families, however no such steps are taken so far which spreads a wave of disappointment and sense of worry amongst the concerned.”

 

It is also pertinent to mention that there are several instances when a crew required to obtain permission from the ship owner company to take certain actions on board for example in case of any fault occurs in ODME (Oil Discharge Monitoring Equipment), then a permission has to be obtained from the corporate authorities which itself resulting in immense delay on account of many of the offices are located in European region where sever lockdown is in place.

 

Thereafter on contacting numerous seamen who has chosen to share their narrative upon condition of anonymity said that;

“We completely understand the COVID-19 impact on the global community and we seamen are no exception to that, moreover we are one of the most effected classes of people when the crew changes are not allowed by the port authorities, such set of events make seafarers mentally and emotionally sick which have the potential to lead to accidents on board.”

Capt. Pradeep Kumar who contacted NGO human rights at sea[2]  stated that

“Ship are sailing and calling at ports frequently with the Pilot on board. Nobody talks about danger of COVID-19 infection to the pilot or seafarer, because it is business. standard cargo operation is going on with shore staff on board. Nobody talks about danger of COVID-19 infection and 14 days quarantine, because it is business. Regular stores and spares are being supplied on board. Nobody talks about danger of COVID-19 infection, because it is business.”

 

Another case of Indian seafarer Mehrzad Wadiwalla who contacted the NGO whilst stuck in Zarzis, Tunisia.[3] Narrated that

“He arrived on March 6 via Tunis to join his ship, but by 16 March the port had stopped crew changes, and he had to return to a hotel. He has since tried to book flights home to India with his own funds and is now paying for his food and accommodation. His funds will not last indefinitely, and he remains away from his family.”

Another seafarer, Hitesh Jain, is currently off Sharjah, UAE, after his contract was completed on January 15 following a transit from China. He has been on the vessel for over eight months without the ability to get off. Visas have now been suspended in the UAE, and he has a new born baby he has yet to see.

 

LEGISLATIVE FRAMEWORK CONCERNING SEAFARER

In these trying times of Covid-19 as seafarers are facing diverse kind of impediments, it would be apt to analyse the statutory framework available at their disposal which ensures and reinstate faith that they too holds ‘right to life which not limited to mere existence but extends to life with  dignity’ as the same principle enshrined in Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR)[4], Article 6.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[5] and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, several welfare provisions are enacted for the protection and welfare of the seafarers under Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, Merchant Shipping (Maritime Labour) Rules, 2016 which provided them remedy to initiate appropriate legal action in the Court of Law to recover their unpaid wages and other statutory benefits from their respective shipping companies, however as the current position demands invocation of immediate welfare benefits such as Seafarers welfare fund society whose primary objective is to provide several welfare facilities to seafarer who are in distressed situation by providing financial assistance to them, their family members, maternity benefits, old aged benefits at the time of sorrow and as the current situation across globe is a glaring example of massive threat to a mankind wherein members of our seafarers community are one of the major victims.

That bring us to a question what are the benefits scheme put in place for the distressed class of seamen and their family members, whether any thought has been given to this area of concern for the people who are none less than a fighter against Covid-19 to keep the supply chain across globe intact. The need of the hour is to frame a public policy addressing the above noted concerns and put the utilization of Seafarers Welfare Fund for the wellbeing of the deserved and their family members in order to set themselves free from psychological trauma regarding the welfare of their loved ones eagerly waiting to meet them during these difficult times.

STEPS INITIATED BY INDIAN GOVERNMENT AND A WAY FORWARD

GUIDELINES FOR SIGN-ON

After taking into consideration the issues concerning Crew Changes in maritime sector, the Directorate General of Shipping, Ministry of Shipping, Government of India had issued Standard Operating Procedures/ Protocols (SOP) for controlled crew change i.e. Sign-on and Sign-off at vessels containing Indian crew members. There is an attempt made to slow down the sufferings of crew members on board as well as those stranded to board the vessel to start their voyage. Set of guidelines contained in the SOP reflecting upon the submission of travel history for last 28 days by the seafarer as per Form no. 1 attached to the SOP and the same has to be submitted to Ship owner/ RPS Agency via email, who needs to submit the same with DG Shipping approved medical examiner, for assessment and certification of the seafarer’s fitness to join ship. Thereafter, as it gathered from the literal interpretation of the text, the medical examiner holds the discretion to call the seafarer to undergo standard medical examination prescribed by DG Shipping as the text reads as follows

4.  “Based on the seafarer’s travel and contact history for last 28 days submitted by the ship owner/ RPS agency , the medical examiner may call the seafarer for standard medical examination prescribed by DGS for certifying medical fitness of the seafarer”.

To the understanding the criteria for exercising discretion by medical examiner does not stand on the foot of equity as the facts stated in the SOP are subject to be manipulated by the applicant and that would defeat the holistic purpose of putting the whole system in force.

It is further pertinent to mention herein that after the approval of medical examiner is obtained, then the obligation to identify the travel route along with arrangement of seafarer’s vehicle and driver falls in the court of Ship owner/ RPS Agency and accordingly an e-pass would be generated which needs to be submitted to the local authorities where seafarer resides for issuance of a transit pass from the place of residence to the place of embarkation on shipping vessel. Upon reaching port of embarkation, the seafarer shall undergo the Covid-19 test and if the results turned out to be ‘negative’ then he/she would be ready to sign-on, otherwise actions would be taken as per the guidelines issued by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

GUIDELINES FOR SIGN-OFF

It would be apt to stated that as many seafarers who are eagerly waiting to reach their mother land and unite with their families at the time of global crises, set of guidelines for Sign-off contained in SOP issued by DGSP which includes but not limited to ascertaining health of each crew member by master of ship before arriving at its port of call in India and submitting of Maritime Declaration of Health to the health authorities of designated Port. It would be the responsibility of ship owners/ RPS that all standard health protocols are observed till the time seafarer reaches the facility of sample collection and a seafarer shall be kept under quarantine facility for a period of 14 days from the date of departure from the last foreign port, upon completion of 14 days, he/she shall undergo a test to confirm ‘negative’ test.

That upon receiving ‘negative’ report of COVID-19, same procedure needs to be followed concerning identification of seafarer’s travel route and making necessary arrangements for the same, however the question arises about the feasibility of the SOP at these difficult times when entire administrative machinery is struggling to prevent the bridge of economy and health system collapsing on its own path taker. Moreover, as the SOP stipulates about providing Car along with a driver from place of residence to port of embarkment are we stand in a position to examine the possibility of compliance of the same by those seafarers whose place of residence is hundreds of miles away and upon whose trust or assurance can they leave their families behind to tackle the pandemic as no policy has been framed so far concerning the same by our legislatures.

CONCLUSION

Therefore, it is a need of the hour to draft and implement a policy framework in order to cater to the needs of the seafarers and their family members in order to infuse a sense of belongingness towards them from their elected representatives and shout loud a message of unity and humanity in this war against indiscernible enemy i.e. Covid-19 when their loved ones are stranded somewhere at the middle of the Ocean and striving to make “the voyage of Life Sail”.

 

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html
[2] https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/ngo-seafarers-calling-for-help
[3] ibid
[4]  United Nations Declaration on Human Rights or UNDHR is a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly by Resolution 217 A (III) on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris, France.
[5] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or ICCPR was created in 1966. It entered into force on 23 March 1976.

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