Last August, when the first wave of India’s Covid-19 pandemic was ebbing, Rajasironmani went back to sea. Rajasironmani, who uses only one name, lives with his family near the south Indian town of Tuticorin. He works as an engineer on cargo ships, and his life is punctuated by crewing contracts; every trip onboard is a new assignment, requiring a new contract. The one he signed in August was for five months on a ship that took him to ports in the US, Australia, Canada, and China, among other places.
But when he was due to fly home from Singapore this past January—just in time to attend a wedding in the family—he found he couldn’t leave the ship. “The man who was supposed to relieve me—another Indian guy—got Covid-19,” Rajasironmani said. He had to stay on another three months, returning home just as India was hit by a second wave of disease.
During the pandemic, seafarers have become the world’s forgotten essential workers. As crews on cargo ships, they help move 90% of global trade and form vital links in the world’s supply chains. Last year, the International Maritime Organization had to push governments to designate seafarers as key workers, to allow them to negotiate travel restrictions and put them in line for priority vaccinations.
At least 240,000 Indians work as commercial seafarers, out of a global workforce of around 1.7 million people crewing 50,000 or so cargo ships. The surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in India this year has hit the livelihoods of these workers hard. Seafarers at home, applying for new assignments, find that companies are reluctant to crew their ships with Indians because of Covid-19 concerns—a situation that leaves these men and women financially vulnerable.
These restrictions, in turn, exacerbate a shortage of labor on cargo ships. As a result, workers like Rajasironmani have to stay onboard well beyond their stipulated terms. At least 7.4% of all seafarers on ships today are working past their contracts because relief crews are in short supply, according to data from the Global Maritime Forum. The crunch of labor has, in part, helped triple the price of freight—from $1,486 for a 40-foot container in May 2020 to $5,472 in May 2021, according to data from Drewry Shipping Consultants, a research firm.
The pandemic makes life on board ships harder as well. In his eight months on board his ship, Rajasironmani said, he didn’t step onto dry land once. Indians, in particular, were denied “shore passes,” he said, referring to the permits that ports issue to seafarers to allow them onshore. Even a standard part of the job—standing on the dock as a ship is loaded, to read the draft marks on its side and gauge how low it sits in the water—had to be hacked. “We hung a net from a crane on the ship, and one of us climbed into the net, to be suspended over the side of the ship, so that we could read the marks,” Rajasironmani said. “It’s risky, but that’s what we had to do. Sometimes I think these shipping companies and port officials don’t think of us as humans.”
At the moment, Rajasironmani is at home with his family—happy, as he said, to not have to apply for work for a while. But others in and near Tuticorin are unable to find new assignments. This part of India is a bountiful source of seafarers. Isaac Franklin, a chaplain at Tuticorin’s port, knows of one village named Punnaikayal, half an hour’s drive south of Tuticorin, where 700-800 people work as crew on cargo ships.
The second wave of Covid-19 has been especially hard on younger seafarers: men and women who have no particular specialized engineering skills, and who are slotted into the rank of “able seamen” by virtue of a few years’ worth of experience aboard ships. “These people usually find new work by paying agents to get them jobs,” Franklin said. “So they’re already in debt when they go onboard. They have to pay the agent off before saving anything for themselves.” As contracts have dried up this summer, at least 1,500 seafarers have turned to Franklin for help. He distributes food and other aid to them with the help of local NGOs as well as a relief fund established by an industry body called the International Chamber of Shipping. The fund is trying to raise a million dollars to assist stranded seafarers.
Ordinarily, seafarers spend 2-3 months at home between contracts, Franklin said. That period has perforce grown longer this year. “There are those who applied for jobs in February who are only joining now. And those who wish to sign on in June will probably only be able to get jobs in September.”
One able seaman, a 39-year-old man named Arokiyam, lives in the village of Alanthalai, an hour south of Tuticorin. He returned from an eight-month trip in April, and is raring to go back to sea. He makes between $20-$30 a day, and he needs the money, because his youngest son needs gastric surgery. But it’ll be a while before he gets a contract, he said. To make a living, Arokiyam has had to return to his father’s profession of fishing.
India’s vaccine shortages worry Arokiyam: “I’ve only gotten one dose of the vaccine, and it’ll definitely be easier for me to get a job if I get both doses.” As of mid-May, roughly 14% of Indian seafarers had received a single dose of the vaccine, and 1% had received both doses. On June 5, the Indian government announced that it would prioritize vaccinations to seafarers, offering jabs at six port hospitals as well as through vaccination camps organized by maritime unions.
Franklin hopes that, as vaccines take hold in India and the second wave quietens, Arokiyam and others will be able to find work again soon. But he suspects Arokiyam won’t find a contract until September. It isn’t surprising that companies are worried about hiring Indians right now, he said. “If anyone tests positive on board a ship while it’s at sea—that will become just a huge, huge issue.”