Navigating out of the grey zone

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Tanya Blake SAS Editor. Credit: IHS Markit

COVID-19 has created untenable situations for crew. Shipping must act to improve mental health provisions now and for the future

For those working in maritime, it has been well-known that our industry often fails to provide adequate mental health services and protections for seafarers. The working conditions are already set up to exacerbate or create mental health issues: isolation; fatigue; months away from home; uncertainty over pay and contracts – to name a handful of stressors. COVID-19 is the final straw in an already untenable situation and shipping is seeing the worrying results from a rise in calls to support lines to suspected suicides.

Our industry is still just beginning to wake up to the need to speak openly about mental health and look critically at how we can better support crew. Many of these solutions are not just about offering better support systems for when people are in crisis or seeking help, but about changing fundamental ways that our industry operates, including how we ensure seafarers rights are protected. Assessing how to tighten regulations and legal protections for crew on issues such as crew abandonment, unpaid wages, or minimum manning to ensure they are not consistently fatigued would be good places to start.

Unfortunately, right now many seafarers, and shipowners, find themselves in a grey zone when it comes to worker’s rights. The thousands of seafarers who are stranded globally and unable to get home due to COVID-19 travel restrictions will undoubtedly feel abandoned, and many literally fall into the legal definition, with many having worked beyond their original contracts and beyond MLC 2006 regulations. COVID-19 has stepped in to put barriers to owners rectifying this situation quickly. Most crew are, however, still receiving pay, regular food and medical supplies, and have agreed to contract extensions – although in the latter case, this is likely less of a choice than out of necessity.

In this grey zone, there is a sense of powerlessness; what must we do when COVID-19 has uncovered so many loopholes in our maritime regulations designed to protect the rights and wellbeing of crew? Why were lessons not learnt from previous pandemics such as SARS to avoid these loopholes we are seeing now? One thing we must keep doing is lobbying governments to establish seafarers as key workers so they can travel safely home and to vessels again.

This is urgently needed as the situation has reached a breaking point for many. Charities are receiving more than three times the number of calls from seafarers seeking support. There have been reports of violence on vessels, and protests such as that on Mein Schiff 3 because crew could no longer withstand being confined on board indefinitely. Sadly, there have been reports of crew deaths and suspected suicides.

Shipping must provide better provisions to protect crew and their mental health now and for the future. There will undoubtedly be a ripple effect as crew members recover from the months of stress they have experienced this year.

While shipping may want to focus on economic recovery, now is the time to invest, more than ever, in resources for crew to access mental health support and alleviate stressors that we know have existed in shipping before the pandemic. Let’s not rush to return to ‘normality’ but rather find a better new normal.

With this sentiment in mind, I would urge our readers to take the Lloyd’s Register COVID-19 Wellbeing survey. The anonymous survey has been launched to find out how the pandemic has affected your lives, to educate and guide the industry on how to improve the mental and physical support systems given to maritime professionals now and in the future. It is vital that seafarers’ voices are heard in this survey as they can all too often be silenced. Take the survey here.