Invisible to those ashore yet instrumental in keeping afloat the comforts of daily life, seafarers have long seeped through the cracks as they straddle worlds and identities.
They have home countries but live literally adrift, becoming strangers to all nations. They play a role in 90% of global trade but are not typically considered essential workers. They are prone to abuse and exploitation but often fall just outside the realm of trafficking advocacy.
Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of these itinerant workers are also trapped.
For seafarers, who are responsible for delivering most food, medicine, electronics and even racehorses around the world, disembarking at most international ports has become an impossibility. The ship may be welcome, but to the community where it docks, members of the crew are perceived as potential carriers of COVID-19, even though they have typically been at sea for longer than the virus lasts.
“They’re sort of like prisoners, now more than ever,” said Sr. Mary Leahy, a Sister of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart who ministers to seafarers as the port chaplain for Stella Maris, Australia in Sydney.
The inability to get off ships means crew changes are less likely, so even when a seafarer’s contract expires after several months of labor, his or her tie to the job can get extended indefinitely. And because crews tend to be made up of individuals who come from poverty, their desperation for an income can be abused easily, as official complaints may leave them blacklisted from other jobs, Leahy said.
“It’s fertile ground for exploitation,” she said.
Since the plight of seafarers is distant to those on land, the international campaign Solidarity with Seafarers is bringing it to the fore, educating the public on the link between the products they buy and the people who deliver them as well as encouraging corporations to examine their suppliers’ human rights practices.
The campaign — a joint effort by Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking, Stella Maris, and the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States — has its eye on one particular whale of a retailer: Walmart.
Petitioning for Walmart to sign the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change is the campaign’s ultimate concrete goal. The international pact, which over 800 companies have already signed, would help recognize seafarers as essential workers, give them priority access to COVID-19 vaccines, and establish better protocols to ensure timely crew changes, said Jennifer Reyes Lay, executive director of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, which organized the petition.
Because Walmart has previously demonstrated a proactive interest in addressing forced labor practices in its supply chains, Reyes Lay said, this push for Walmart to include seafarers in that commitment is as possible as it would be impactful.
“It’s modern slavery … and companies that import stuff should be able to prove there’s no slavery in the chain,” Leahy said.COVID, Seafarers