Your Holiday Gifts Could Be Shipped Through an Unexpected Source of Forced Labor This Year

Joe McCarthy

The International Maritime Organization

“[It’s] very agonizing.” “It has been immensely traumatic.” “[It] feels like [I’m] stuck in jail with no way out.”

These are a few of the responses to a survey the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) sent to seafarers — the workers who maintain and operate the massive shipping vessels that move 80% to 90% of the world’s goods — about what it’s like to be trapped on a vessel for weeks and months beyond what they signed up for.

Those who responded are part of the estimated 400,000 seafarers who are currently stuck on vessels against their will with no sense of when they’ll be able to return home and see their families because of the ad-hoc rules surrounding travel that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As countries shut down airports, stop cross-border travel, and restrict the movement of people more generally, seafarers who board vessels in one country and travel to others have been stranded in a legal limbo where they’re not able to disembark and engage in crew changes, the process of swapping out crew members.

Seafarers sign contracts to manage ships with the understanding that they’ll be able to walk off the boat and return home once they reach a destination port. But countries have largely barred seafarers from getting off vessels because of fears around the potential spread of COVID-19 and the fact that most seafarers have to be flown or otherwise transported, or repatriated, to their home country. Their home countries, meanwhile, have often refused to facilitate their return due to the same fears around COVID-19. Nearly every stage in this process has been suspended until further notice.

And every additional day on a vessel is another day of challenging and dangerous work in ever-deteriorating conditions, sometimes for reduced or deferred pay. 

“You can imagine what that would do to someone psychologically, to be in a metal box for months and seeing ports come and go and come and go, and not being able to touch land, go ashore for a fresh meal, do something different, see different people,” said Stephen Cotton, the ITF’s General Secretary. “And because of the inability to have fresh crew join these ships, those lucky enough to get off are not being replaced in equal number, forcing the remaining crew to do more and more work with a dwindling team. That’s a recipe for accident and injury.”

Outside a pandemic, seafarers on cargo vessels typically work seven days a week, generally for no more than nine months in a row. They’re prohibited from working more than 11 months straight because of the extreme stress and fatigue it would cause. But many seafarers have now exceeded this internationally recognized limit.

“They’re not able to see their loved ones, not able to attend births and funerals, they’re uncertain about how and when they will be repatriated,” said Sturla Henriksen, special adviser for the ocean for the UN Global Compact. “If you’re on board a vessel, you don’t have broadband connection like we have on shore, so communication back home is both scarce and quite costly. The psychological toll is heavy and we have numerous reports that this is really starting to develop into not only an issue for individuals but for entire crews.”

The ongoing use of the over-contract crew who have no choice but to continue working could give rise to a situation of forced labor, Cotton said, which means that human rights violations may now be embedded in the supply chains of various economic sectors, from consumer goods to fuel to medical equipment.

There’s now a good chance that the many of the gifts purchased online and at brick-and-mortar stores this holiday season will have been transported by ships using forced labor. Consumers around the world will be confronted with questions of fair trade and human rights when they participate in seasonal shopping sprees. 

“The priorities of the system are clearly on show,” said Cotton. “People have their toys and presents, but who’s delivering that Christmas? Who’s putting in the sacrifice? And who is being forced into a labor situation they haven’t agreed to?”

Cotton compared the situation of the crew to a rubber band being stretched. The longer seafarers are stuck at sea, the more exhaustion and burn out sets in, and the more likely an environmental disaster such as an oil spill or crew member-maiming accident will occur. Flag States, which register ships, are responsible for making sure vessels are seaworthy and safe to operate. Prior to the pandemic, they did this via regular independent inspections carried out by experienced auditors. But from March, regulators began exempting ships from the checks, and shifted the important task on to already overworked crew themselves. This could mean that various safety problems are being overlooked.

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In the ITF’s survey, 73.3% of seafarers reported being “tired and fatigued” and 60.1% worried that an accident was becoming increasingly likely the longer crews worked in these uncertain conditions. 

“The world needs us to continue doing our jobs, and to do it safely and efficiently,” one seafarer told the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in an interview, the transcript of which was provided to Global Citizen. “And the more this goes on, the more chances of something going wrong. It’s not a threat, because I don’t think anybody would do so on purpose, but it is a question of just fatigue. You cannot have someone out there for 17 months away from their families, in some cases not even being paid, and expect them to continue to do their jobs.”

“We want to go to work, do our bit, and then come home,” another seafarer told the IMO.

“We didn’t sign up for what felt like an unwanted prison sentence, an unjustified prison sentence.”

The plight of seafarers reflects larger structural inequalities that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the virus emerged, shutdowns began, and as economies began to falter, migrant and low-paid workers who often perform the most essential jobs — from farmwork to health care to construction — have often been excluded from receiving support from stimulus packages and social safety nets. For seafarers, it’s not just those stuck on ships who are suffering. There are also another 400,000 seafarers awaiting their next tour, unable to board ships and earn the income they depend on for survival. 

The crisis also sheds light on long-standing problems in the industry. While a career at sea can represent a large step up in pay, crew members routinely contend with being abandoned on vessels, low pay, inadequate on-board conditions, poor quality food and water, and other labor rights violations. 

“We don’t want countries to run out of food, we don’t want to be responsible for mass starvation or ventilators running out, but we’re getting taken for granted,” said Stuart Neil, the communications director for the International Chamber of Shipping. 

Cotton said that the lack of global uproar around this crisis stems in part from the fact that after many of the seafarers from Global North countries trapped aboard vessels were spirited home by their governments early on in the pandemic, media attention faded from the crisis, even as it deepened for the mostly Global South workforce. The vast majority of seafarers hail from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and China.

“Ending this crisis requires those with power and influence over our modern supply chains to speak up and say ‘this is unacceptable, this can’t go on, we want to see it resolved’. In 2020, the people with that power are consumers – consumers can speak up and ensure human rights abuses are not committed in their name this Christmas,” said Cotton.

In recent months, a few countries have designated seafarers 'key' workers, which provides greater protections and more freedom of movement, and some ports have facilitated successful crew changes, but the vast majority of vessels have been unable to release their crews, repatriate them to their home countries, and then bring on new crew members. 

The International Maritime Organization has drafted protocols for resolving this humanitarian crisis, but the political willpower has yet to be realized. With each passing day, multinational corporations that charter these vessels, ship owners, seafarer staffing agencies, multilateral organizations, and government bodies are faced with the fact that they can put an end to this crisis if they wanted to, according to Cotton. 

Citizens around the world can also call on companies and governments to help seafarers.

Following an investigation by Bloomberg News in September, dozens of major companies and corporations as part of the Consumer Goods Forum wrote an open letter calling for the universal adoption of the IMO’s 12-step plan for allowing crew changes and repatriation. 

But the fragmented nature of the shipping industry has meant that each link in the shipping system tends to pass the buck of responsibility along to the next link in an indefinite game of hot potato, Cotton said.

“Most of the industry can see what a ticking time bomb this problem is, and we welcome their collaboration," he said. "But some players still don’t see how it’s their problem. There are still major charterers, for example, who hire these ships who refuse to let crew divert into ports where they might a hope of getting off. The reality is that every part of the industry will need to pay a price to get these guys home.”

At the most fundamental level, the crisis comes down to government inaction. Ports are regulated points of entry and governments have the power to facilitate crew changes even amid a pandemic. 

After all, seafarers are exceedingly unlikely to be carrying COVID-19 after being quarantined on the ocean for months at a time. And governments concerned about vessels being vectors of disease can simply test seafarers before they disembark and then enforce basic health and quarantine guidelines to ensure nobody contracts or spreads the virus during the repatriation process.

The whole process would cost more money and involve more oversight, but advocates explain that seafarers are essential workers who are the bloodstream of the global economy, transporting goods and supplies to where they’re intended to go. They make sure hospitals have medical equipment, consumer goods giants can restock their shelves, and transportation systems have the fuel to operate. 

“The vital importance of seafarers is overlooked,” Henriksen said. “People do not understand how their daily lives as consumers, how most industrial activities, and how society at large are dependent on these 1.2 million seafarers manning the international fleet."

Part of the problem, he explained, is due to seafarers’ largely invisible work.

“If the fleet stopped for a day, the entire world economy would come to a standstill, but we don’t see them, they’re out of sight, out of mind, people don’t care,” he said. “Now a humanitarian catastrophe is developing and if we are not acting now for these people, it will hit and hurt them first, but the effects will be severe for the entire global community.”