By Sara Baade, CEO, Sailors’ Society
Seafaring has a reputation for being a desirable career in India – and for many who join the merchant fleet, it’s an exciting, lucrative choice.
But as the largest international maritime charity operating on the ground in the country, we also come across many seafarers who experience a different side to the industry and end up penniless, desperate and alone.
With around 14 per cent of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers coming from India, many have been caught up in the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions. Hundreds of thousands of crews have been trapped at sea for months after their contracts have ended, or are facing poverty at home because they can’t get to sea in order to work.
It’s especially difficult at the moment for Indian crews at sea, as the latest wave of the virus devastates their country. Many are in fear for their families’ health, powerless to support sick loved ones many miles away and isolated in their grief if the worst happens.
Just last month, we received a call from a shipping company very concerned for an Indian master on board one of their ships; he had just lost four members of his family to the pandemic.
The ship owner involved is a good employer and, along with several companies and maritime academies in India, has invested in the wellbeing of its crews by partnering with us on our Wellness at Sea programme of wellness training and helpline support.
While these organisations value their employees’ wellbeing, there are sadly other disreputable companies and agents in India that at best disregard the health of their crews – and at worst put them in physical and mental danger.
Many unscrupulous agents in India profiteer from newly qualified cadets. In breach of the Maritime Labour Convention, they demand payment to secure them a contract, and the cadets’ families feel they have no choice but to borrow significant sums of money to pay the bribe.
While the agent’s fee can be more than the seafarer will earn on his first job, they pay up in the hope that the experience will lead to more work in the future.
Sadly, our community development manager in India, Manoj Joy, regularly supports seafarers who discover instead that the ship owner delays paying their salaries, sometimes for months at a time, leaving their families in arrears with their loans.
Sometimes, the ship itself will become unseaworthy and the crews are abandoned for months or even years in foreign ports because the owner does not want to pay to fix the ship or to get them home.
Manoj supports both the crews and their families: offering a listening ear, finding them pro bono legal support and arranging emergency grants for families in financial crisis.
He also leads our other community work in India, including our mobile medical unit and partnership with the Volunteer Health Services (VHS) Hospital in the port city of Chennai, offering free medical services for serving and retired seafarers who can’t afford basic healthcare.
Last year, we partnered with VHS to provide vital medication to 450 seafarers – most of whom had coronavirus symptoms – when they were stranded off the Andaman Islands.
Alongside our wellness and community support work, we provide chaplaincy in five Indian ports: Chennai, Kandla, Paradip, Haldia and Mumbai.
Our chaplains meet crews on board ships or in seafarer centres to offer them physical, emotional and spiritual support – from a listening ear to a lift into town.
Coronavirus restrictions have meant that at times they’ve had to drop off supplies to the bottom of gangways or offer counselling over the phone instead of face-to-face.
But their dedication hasn’t waivered – and as seafarers face even more challenges due to coronavirus, our chaplains in India know their support is more important than ever.
This article is shared by courtesy of Sailors’ Society, a personal lifeline for seafarers on board ship and when they step ashore in port.
You can help seafarers in India – and around the world – who have been badly affected by the coronavirus crisis. Give today to let them know they’re not forgotten at this difficult time.