by Fr. Bruno Ciceri, cs
Since the declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), it was clear that the lives of seafarers, fishers and their families would be impacted significantly. Thanks to the stable work and a good salary, many seafarer’s families are representing the lower middle class. With the crisis triggered by COVID-19, hundreds of thousands seafarers (especially the ones employed by the cruise industry) will be unemployed for months and months. Because of lack of money their lifestyle will change and they will lose many benefits that until now they were enjoying.
On the one hand, commercial shipping did not stop and vessels continued to criss-cross the oceans moving essential goods needed for our life. Many crew members had their contracts extended because borders were closed and until today it is very difficult to organize crew changes. Many ports have been locked down, everyone on board was prevented to come ashore for fear of infection. Our chaplains and volunteers shifted to “virtual chaplaincy” and, where it was still possible, from ship visits to “gangway visits”.
On the other hand, the cruise ship industry has come to a complete stop. Several cruise ships with infected passengers and crews on board were refused entry. Passengers got priority and returned safely home, leaving thousands upon thousands of crew members stranded in vessels around the world, without flights to return home, but most of all with a bleak future for them and their families.
The whole fisheries sector was also hugely hit by the COVID-19 and the precarious condition in which many fishers and their families are living was aggravated by the lack of daily income and of a safety net provided by government institutions.
The Chaplains and volunteers of Stella Maris, being on the front lines in ports, realized straightaway the immediate situation of emergency in which many of seafarers and fishers without source of income and stranded both in foreign nations and even in their own country.
However, the real impact of COVID-19 in the life of seafarers and their needs will be clear in the next six to twelve month. For this reason Stella Maris prepared a very short survey composed by 18 different questions. The survey was completed in anonymous way on line, distributed through the personal contacts of the chaplains, volunteers and social media starting on Monday, May 4 until Wednesday, May 13 has collected 365 answers. No doubt, 365 responses are like drop of water compared with the ocean considering the 1.4 million seafarers in the world, but none-the-less this level of response helps us represent the needs of seafarers.
The survey does not pretend to be a professional one which provides scientific results. However, it can give us some sense of the scale of the problems and worries that seafarers and their families are facing now and in the future.
This data should guide Stella Maris and others welfare providers to prepare plans to respond to the real needs of the people of the sea.
In a way, the survey has confirmed the impressions that we as welfare providers have perceived by being in touch with them through our chaplains and volunteers.
The first set of questions aimed to gather personal information to create a personal profile of the responding seafarers.
- Gender: 97% were male and 3% female. This breakdown represents fairly closely the global percentage of gender in the maritime industry.
- Nationality: the majority of the answers comes from the Philippines (83,5%), with a very limited percentage from India (5,2%) and rest from others countries. The overwhelming majority of Filipino responses could be justified by the global percentage of Filipino seafarers (1/3 of 1.4 million) but also by the many personal contacts that our chaplains and volunteers have with them.
- Age: the great majority of respondent were from the age bracket 35-44 years (34,2%) followed by the ones from 25-34 years (28,9%) then from 45-54 years (22,6%).
- Civil Status: two-thirds of them were married (62,8%) and the rest were single (34,2%).
- Number of Children: 34,7% have no child, 20,7% have one child, 26,4% have two children, 14,3% have three children. These percentages are important because they reflected later on the expenses necessary to sustain the education of children.
- Family members supported: almost half of the respondent (48,2%) are supporting more than three persons, 19% three persons, 17,4% two persons and 7,2% one person. Many seafarers are not only supporting their immediate family, but also parents and other relatives.
The second set of questions wanted to create the profile of the person as a seafarer.
- How long have you been a seafarer? The majority (24,2%) fell in the bracket 10-14 years followed immediately by the ones in 5-9 bracket (23,1%) making up almost half of the answers. The ones with less than 5 years of experience reached 20,1% and finally the ones between 15-19 years (16,3%).
- What is your current rank? The responses covered the whole spectrum of different seafarer’s ranks, with equal distribution for Deck Officers and AB (13,8%), then members of the Steward Department (12,9%) followed by the Member of Engine Crew, Cadet and Engine Officers just over 9%, and the Master with (6,3%).
- When was your last contract? The answers covered the period from October 2016 to May 2020. But if we would like to consider only the last 9 months (the length of a contract) from October 2019 to May 2020 the valid responses are only one third (34%).
- On which ship did you last embark? Even to this question the answers are covering a variety of vessels, however the great majority (37,5%) were employed on board a cargo ship, followed by tankers (24%) and container ships (11,6%) and cruise liners (9,9%).
The third set of question tries to establish the actual situation of the seafarers:
- What is your current situation? Almost half of the answers indicated that are waiting for a new contract (42,4%), while 30,9% were about to be deployed but were grounded because of COVID-19, for 14,3% the contract was terminated because of COVID-19. Finally for the 12,4% their contract was extended because of COVID-19, the reason could because of it is still very difficult to do a crew change because of lack of flights or ports that would allow it.
- Where are you now? only a small percentage of them are in hotel abroad waiting to return home (5,9%), 23,7% are at home while the great majority (67,9%) of them are in their country either in a hotel, dormitory, boarding house, etc. run by welfare provider (Stella Maris), agents.
The fourth set of questions asked how seriously COVID-19 impacted the life of the seafarers: Mentally, Emotionally, Physically, Psychologically and Financially.
The answers to this question reveals that the majority of the seafarers have been affected (Mentally, Emotionally, Physically and Psychologically), in the average between “Little” to “Quite a bit”. As a welfare provider we should take note of these data and make sure that we continue to interact with the seafarers to provide (through mass media and other instruments) support for their physical and mental wellbeing.
It is the response to the last question (Financially) that reveals where COVID-19 has hit deeply in the lives of seafarers. It is on the financial aspect where as welfare providers, with the assistance of different donors we might intervene, not only with emergency funds for the immediate needs but to livelihood projects to sustain them on the long run (six months/one year), while the maritime industry will recover.
The fifth set of questions probed what the relevant issues in the lives of seafarers would be for the next six months/one year.
It appears clear that for the majority of respondents the most urgent need was to get a new contract and go back to work. Few seem to be contemplating the idea of looking for a new job outside of seafaring. Of course this could be explained by the fact that the majority of them have invested so much to become a seafarers and have been in this profession only between 5 to 15 years. Most probably, they are not yet tired of it and they think they could get more out of it.
Only 10% of the responses regarding starting a livelihood project consider it “Not much relevant”. This is a field that Stella Maris in cooperation with the principal donors could explore in providing “seed money” to start a small business to support the family of the seafarers while they are waiting to return on board and guarantee a minimum and stable income to be use for the ordinary running expenses and in emergencies.
At the moment it appears that the issue of upgrading their certificates is not a priority first because many maritime authorities have extended the validity of the Certificates, for a couples of months or until the end of the situation of emergency created by COVID-19. The problem of money could emerge later when they will need to renew certificates and they have to pay.
The sixth set of questions would like to know the extent of regular expenses for the seafarer and his/her family.
The responses to the whole set of questions is considered “Very important” and it is on line with one of the previous questions that identified that the main impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the life of the seafarers was financial.
To provide daily food for extended family members is the most pressing need. It will be even more pressing in the next few months when the emergency relief goods provided now by governments and charities will stop. Even the little savings set aside for a rainy day will disappear and the seafarers will be waiting to be called for a new contract.
Education is an extremely important aspect of the life of many seafarers. They were helped by their family start their seafarer career, now they in turn have to help other family members get an education. Buying uniforms, school supplies, and the payment of tuition fees is an issue that will show its urgency in a few months’ time (August) when school will resume.
The monthly payment of all the above mentioned expenses is “Very important” for the seafarers because it guarantees a normal and regular life for his or her family. If they cannot afford to pay these expenses after a few months, they will be evicted. The alternative is to return to the Province where the parents might live. Yet, since they are already used to city life they might choose to go and in live a “squatter area” enlarging the number of people living at the margins of society.
Medical expenses are not a regular monthly expenditure, but none the less it should be considered because in most of the countries that we are considering there is no national medical insurance. Medicines and hospitals are rather expensive.
Many respondents consider the payments of loans “Very important”. Typically, after a seafarer starts a career in the maritime world he or she feels secure enough to buy an apartment or house or a car (maybe to be used as a GRAB, a kind of Uber in Asia) by taking out a loan from a bank or a specialized company. When they are working, they don’t have a problem paying the monthly payment. Now that are not working they cannot pay regularly. In the next few months the risk is that the bank or the lending company is going to repossess their apartment/house or a car, no matter how much they have already paid.
It is necessary that welfare providers and donors research and study the best way to assist seafarers in continuing to pay their monthly loan payments or their dream – to provide a better future for their loved ones -will be gone forever.
The seventh set of questions asked how much where the totals of monthly costs.
The cost of putting food on the table for the majority of the seafarers varies between $200USD to $400USD according to the number of people forming the extended family.
Uniforms and schools supplies appear not to be very expensive, ranging between $100USD to $200USD. This is one of the expenses where Stella Maris and the funding agencies could easily provide assistance by buying school supplies in bulk and then distributing them.
For almost 30% of the respondents the cost of the tuition fees is around $400USD, because they generally send their children to private schools, where education is better. If they remain unemployed, the seafarers will be forced to send their children to government school adding pressure to a system that is already overcrowded and is lacking structures and facilities to provide a basic education. In cooperation with the different Maritime Schools, it might be considered to provide more scholarships to the some of the maritime students.
More than 40% are having a monthly loan payment of $400USD that is on line with the investment done to buy an apartment/house or a car. The main issue is that many of the seafarers have just paid only between two to five years of a ten-fifteen year loan. Unless they will return to work or find an alternative source of income, they will lose everything.
The eighth set of questions dealt directly with the kind of assistance the Stella Maris network could provide to seafarers.
The answers, to the question in which way the Stella Maris Network could help the seafarers, do not leave any doubt. The majority of the responses is “Very important”: the seafarers are sending a clear message for our Chaplains and volunteers.
It matters less matter how we do it, what we do, what we say and what we give – what it counts is that we must be present to the seafarers and where it is possible even on board.
About the author: Fr. Bruno Ciceri, cs is International Director of Stella Maris at the Holy See Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. He is also a Trustee of the International Christian Maritime Association. During his career, Fr. Bruno has worked caring for migrants, refugees and seafarers around the world. Between 1996 and 2008, he was Director of the Stella Maris International Service Centre and port chaplain of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Prior to that, between 1985 and 1996, he was based in the Philippines, working with migrant workers.