“We were out of sight and out of mind,” says Second Officer Jaisal Bhati. “Everybody forgot about us (and) everyone turned a blind eye.” Behind the scenes of the coronavirus pandemic, an invisible workforce of about one million seafarers has continued to toil on bulk carriers, oil tankers, fishing vessels, cruise ships, and more. These people have crisscrossed the world, many working seven-day weeks with no holidays or even sick days delivering medicines, grain, coal, fuel—and now vaccines. “They wanted our services but they did not want us.”
Even in normal circumstances, weathering the perilous seas with limited personnel is a tough, dangerous job. A regular cargo ship might be crewed by only 20 people, each with designated duties—a ship at sea, like a plane in the air, requires constant attention so one cannot simply “down tools” and leave it unattended without risking catastrophe. On top of their daily tasks, each seafarer has emergency responsibilities for fire, health, defense, come what may. There are no separate firemen, doctors, or policemen on board. It’s just the crew, where every worker is essential and any delay is unthinkable.
And while many industries ground to a standstill as a result of the coronavirus, the global shipping industry did not. As the health crisis spread, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) agreed to allow two month-long contract extensions for seafarers in March and April and a “final implementation period” in May 2020 to avoid a disruption in international trade and make time for crew changes to happen as borders and airports started to close down. But companies and flag states took that show of grace and ran with it. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated in December that as many as “400,000 seafarers remain on board commercial vessels, unable to be repatriated and past the expiry of their contracts.”