What does the threat of criminalisation really mean to seafarers?
By Charles Boyle
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented challenges for the maritime sector with seafarers facing prolonged periods of time onboard, increasingly stressful working conditions, limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and in some cases, a total absence of shore leave.
The case of cruise ship the Ruby Princess, which docked in Sydney Harbour and saw around 2,700 passengers disembark without being tested for Covid-19, highlighted the problem of potential criminalisation, where action has been taken by Nautilus International to protect the interests of its members.
In the case of the Ruby Princess, the vessel was quarantined in New South Wales (NSW) by the Australian Government and placed under the control of a military health contractor, assisted by the NSW police and Australian army, trying to establish who was responsible for allowing the passengers to disembark and potentially spread the virus throughout Australia.
A crew of over 1,000 seafarers including some members of Nautilus International were kept onboard where up to 800 of these crew members were attempting to self-isolate, while a further 200 experienced
Covid-19 symptoms. Together with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Nautilus International called for its members and other seafarers to be allowed to disembark the vessel and where necessary receive medical treatment and suitable accommodation.
The New South Wales State Government ordered a criminal inquiry into who was responsible for allowing these passengers to leave the ship without being tested, to potentially spread the virus wider throughout the country. At the time, I wrote to the lead investigator of the NSW Police to insist the investigation adhered to the joint International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) Guidelines on Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident (2006), maintaining the dignity, legal safeguards and fair treatment of all seafarers onboard Ruby Princess.
Who is to blame?
The risk of criminalisation continues to be a challenging issue within the maritime industry with 90% of sea- farers concerned about the risk while a recent survey of Nautilus’s 20,000 members revealed that two thirds of maritime professionals feel the risk of criminalisation impacts their desire to stay within the shipping sector.
Nautilus is positioned at the forefront of the drive to ensure seafarers are not made scapegoats for maritime incidents, as they are often seen as an easy target for law enforcement authorities, and they are particularly vulnerable in foreign ports and unfamiliar jurisdictions. In recent years, the Union has observed an increase in seafarers being criminalised, and the opportunities that authorities find for blame are growing with the ever-increasing legislation with which seafarers must comply.
Accidents happen in every industry, but no other industry appears to treat their workers like criminals when they do, with the implication often being that seafarers deliberately set out to cause a collision, injury, or spillage.
Despite the global reliance on the maritime industry, with 90% of goods moving by sea, when an incident does occur there can be great public outcry and a demand for someone to be held accountable – with shipmasters and senior officers usually in the firing line.
When seafarers find themselves in particularly difficult circumstances, this can be detrimental to their mental health and may lead to nightmares, difficulty sleeping or even post- traumatic stress. While facing criminal charges is likely to place a lot of stress on an individual mentally, it will also impact family relationships and finances if the individual is unable to work.
Maritime unions around the world are committed to combatting the threat of criminalisation and are campaigning to ensure maritime professionals have access to unbiased and unwavering support if they find themselves at risk. There remains a shortage of information available for seafarers, especially about local laws and different legislation in foreign jurisdictions.
The Nautilus Federation is a group of likeminded trade unions in the shipping industry, who have come together to improve and expand the services they can offer to their members. The Federation acts as a global support network for their members meaning help is available to them wherever they are in the world.
To combat the criminalisation of seafarers, the Nautilus Federation launched the Joint Assistance and Support Network (JASON), supported by Nautilus 24/7, which is a round- the-clock multilingual helpline run by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). Through JASON, the Nautilus Federation facilitates mutual assistance and support for seafarers who are members of a Federation Union. A major objective is to ensure that the IMO/ILO Fair Treatment Guidelines are fully observed in a case where a member is to be interviewed by a law enforcement authority.
Additionally, in the coming months Nautilus International will be launching a new mobile app, giving members instant access to advice following an incident at sea and a means to contact the Union directly by completing an incident report.
The maritime sector facilitates 95% of UK trade and the work of seafarers is critical to keeping goods moving.
It is vital there is a change in the way seafarers are treated when things go wrong. Instead of being constantly blamed, seafarers need to be treated fairly and appreciated for the essential role they play in our economy. This echoes the preamble to the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, that states, given the global nature of the shipping industry, seafarers need ‘special protection’.
Charles Boyle is director of legal services for Nautilus International.
For more information on the threat of criminalisation, or to find out more about the support available to seafarers, visit: https://www.nautilusint.org/en/
Supporting seafarer physical wellbeing
This international shipping industry is responsible for the carriage of around 90% of world trade. This inevitably positions seafarers as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shouldering the responsibility of supplying the world with essentials such as food, medical supplies and goods, seafarers must take better care of themselves now more than ever, in body and in mind.
This begins with maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. Set up a healthy eating plan and enjoy a balanced diet. Consume more fruits and vegetables, reduce intake of foods high in sodium and sugar. Match your calorie intake to your energy output and maintain an ideal body mass index of 18.5-24.9.
If you eat more, remember to exercise more. Moderation is key! Set yourself a regular and manageable exercise routine that you can maintain. There are many simple and effective workouts that you can do in your cabin without specialised gym equipment such as push ups and sit ups.
Be responsible and take care of yourself during this period so you can take care of others.
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