An estimated 300,000 crew on merchant ships have been left stranded at sea around the world by the coronavirus pandemic unable to go onshore - including thousands in New Zealand waters - in what advocates say it's a 'humanitarian crisis'.
The Ministry of Transport has now allocated $295,000 to help those stuck in New Zealand ports through the Mission to Seafarers' organisation. Wellington-based chaplain Reverend Lance Lukin is the Oceania Regional Director for the organisation, he talked to Kim Hill on RNZ's Saturday Morning about the situation.
Lukin says seafarers are one of the most vulnerable and isolated groups in our society.
"There's thousands of ships coming in and out of New Zealand ports a year. There's about 1.5 million seafarers at work at any one time in the world.
"And typically for the lower paid - the able bodied seafarer their contracts are around 9 months long. So at the end of that nine months they will be crew changed in and out. So in any month one twelfth of that 1.5 million seafarers are going through crew changes."
Those at sea now don't know when they will be able to get home.
He says the International Transportation Federation has called on all seafarers to go on strike at the end of their contracts if they're not given shore leave and a crew change.
"If that happens, New Zealand's economy stops overnight - 120 billion of export comes by ship, 99 percent of trade comes by ship."
Lukin says seafarer centres operate at each port, manned by volunteers - many who are retirees. The money from the Ministry of Transport will be used to employ more workers so fewer volunteers are needed.
"In this time of pandemic we want to limit the number of people who have acess to ships, but we want to continue to provide that much-needed welfare and support."
He says many sailors are from China, Philippines and India. But both the Philippines and India have tightened border rules, making it harder for crews from those countries to get home.
[They're] "desperately wanting to go home, desperately wanting to communicate with their families. We had a ship come into Wellington last week with 18 crew on, 12 of whom are 5 months over the expiration of their contract.
"They should be being paid, but we know globally non-payment of wages is one of the key concerns of seafarers.
"And we're talking about a pretty low paid workforce anyway. The minimum wage in New Zealand is $18 an hour, for a Filipino sailor the average wage is 90 cents an hour - it's incredibly dangerous, isolated, high risk environment at the best of times - let alone adding in a pandemic."
Many are still working, but can no longer go ashore.
"There's about 40 or 50 thousand crew trapped on cruise ships off the coast of the US, and in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, that can't get off the ships, won't be allowed to get off the ships."
In New Zealand, crews who have been symptom-free for 28 days can go into 14 days of managed isolation if they want to go onshore.
"Given the fact that a ship will enter to the Port of Welllington here today, it will be in port for 8 hours, and it will not be in NZ territorial waters for 14 days - so the likelihood of a seafarer actually being able to get off is next to impossible.
"The reality is apart from the cruise ships right at the beginning and there are no cruise ships now - not one case of Covid has come on a container ship or a logging ship, so we don't want them to come across our borders and bring Covid - but the reality is they don't want to come across our borders typically because they don't want to catch Covid, because they're going to then get back on that ship and spend 28 days going back to China with no medical facilities on board."
Most countries test seafarers for Covid-19 when they arrive the border. New Zealand does not, but the Mission to Seafarers is pushing to have it introduced.
Lukin says it could mean seafarers calling at multiple ports would get their results from the test while they still had the opportunity to go onshore.
"I talked to a seafarer here in Wellington last week who has not physically touched ground for 183 days - you've got to think of the mental health implications of that. We know at the best of times that working at sea is a highly risky environment, and the mental health implications are huge. This is a low paid workforce who have limited resources available on board ships.
"Most ships don't have gyms or recreational facilities, you're on board for 9 months, and when you come into a port all you want to do is get off, get some fresh air, and most importantly you want to get access to some wifi so you can Facetime and chat with your family back home who you haven't seen in 9 months - [wifi] is not available on board ships."
The Seafarer Centres provid free wifi, and while they're closed during the Covid pandemic, the organisations' workers are donning full Protective Personal Equipment and taking portable wifi units onto the ships.
"So that at least for that eight hour period [while they're in port] seafarers can hotspot and talk to their families."
Lukin says while self-harm and suicide statistics are hard to monitor, there's anecdotal indications these have increased during the pandemic.
"The best outcome really is that New Zealand honours its obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention - the international bill of rights of seafarers - that they have shore leave, that they have access to welfare facilities that are funded and have competent staff to provide the mental health needs they have right now.
"That's the basic things they want - firstly to have wifi access, and then they want to be able to talk about all the stuff that's going on in their own lives that they can't talk to the shipping agent about - because that's their employer; they can't talk to the captain about, because he's their boss on board; they won't talk to the government authorities about, because they come from countries where governments are feared, so they want to talk to someone independent - which is why we exist."