At 16.30 on 3 August 2021 the massive ship Ever Given weighed anchor at the port of Felixstowe. 200,000 gross tonnage and the length of four football fields, she is one of the world’s thirteen largest container ships owned by a subsidiary of a Japanese shipbuilding company and chartered by Evergreen Maritime shipping based in Taiwan. Ever Given’s voyage had been eventful and became internationally renowned after running aground and blocking the Suez Canal.
She had stubbornly refused to budge and clear the ship-jam: as a result over 300 vessels, including five other container ships, 41 bulk carriers and 24 crude oil tankers, got stuck at both ends of the canal for the over six days it took to re-float her. Once refloated, she was impounded by the Egyptian government and held for three months in Ismaila until compensation was sorted out and paid.
As the Ever Given drew into Felixstowe onlookers came out to see the maritime prodigy. One man though, Julian Wong, was more interested in seeing the crew on board. The Port Chaplain for East Anglia and Haven Ports, who worked for Stella Maris UK, the British branch of an international charity caring for seafarers and those on fishing boats around the world, he had seen plenty of giant container ships. His concern was the crew - who were not permitted to go ashore. Early in the morning after the Ever Given had docked, he went to offer support and brought chocolates for all on board. The captain and first officer sent back a thank-you message with a selfie. The ship was gone the next day, an average turn-around time.
Spending months at sea without setting foot on land is a common experience for the seafarers who come to Britain, many from Asian countries. Bigger ships, smaller crews, more exhausting work. Though some of the most acute welfare needs are found in more modest fishing vessels. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2006 Maritime Labour Convention, ratified by 97 States by 2021, “aims to provide minimum living and working conditions for seafarers that are globally applicable and uniformly enforced, including granting seafarers shore leave”. ‘Aims’ is the operative word. Shore-leave, a critical matter for health and wellbeing, depends on ships’ Masters who have complete control over who can come on board and whether crew can disembark but are themselves under pressure from the shipping companies focussed on profitability and ever faster turn-around times. During the global COVID pandemic hundreds of thousands of seafarers were not allowed to leave their ships at all. Much mental illness resulted. Vital medical needs were more than usually difficult to obtain.
Nine big shipping lines joined in three alliances dominate global container traffic. In 2021 the profits of these shipping lines amounted to £157 billion. Prior to COVID, according to Nick Glynne on Radio 4, managing director of the retail company Buy It Direct, shipping companies were charging c. £2,000 to transport a standard 40 foot container from China. At the peak of COVID infections the charge was anything between £16,000 and £20,000. Shipping a fridge from China pre-COVID, for example, cost the retailer £10. This rose to £100 during COVID whilst the shipping companies’ costs rose c. 15%. Negotiations by the International Transport Workers Federation on the minimum wage for seafarers resulted in an increase: from £6,114 to £6,316 per annum taking effect from January 2023.
Yet, it took P&O ferries’ callous dismissal of its largely British workforce, in order to substitute cheap and non-unionised foreign labour, for the plight of seafarers to gain public attention. The ‘M’ in RMT stands for Maritime but a Filipino seaman is unlikely to be able to join a union during a two day stop in a British port even if he is allowed to disembark within the port precincts.
Stella Maris has 1,000 chaplains and volunteer ship visitors in over 300 ports in 54 countries. Reporting on the last three years work, they list their top three priorities: responding to the impact of COVID, supporting victims of abuse at work, and responding to ‘ship abandonment’, that is the practice of dumping seafarers thousands of miles from home when things go wrong. (Leaving an abandoned ship can be breach of contract - if stranded crew can get home, they may lose their pay).
The problems for seafarers caused by the war in Ukraine have been little reported. Stella Maris provides very tangible emergency help irrespective of nationality. In Odessa, with the help of the Stella Maris Crisis Support Fund, Father Alex Smerechynsky and his assistant Rostik Inzhestoikov care for families of seafarers fleeing Ukraine. Father Edward Pracz, Stella Maris chaplain for the Polish Baltic Sea port of Gdynia located on the western coast of Gdańsk Bay, has converted a retreat centre into a home for some 50 women and children, families of Ukrainian seafarers.
Breaking the isolation of shipboard life is a routine element in Stella Maris’ work. Every year they provide internet access to seafarers and thousands of free sim-cards to contact their families after long periods at sea. There is also a more intangible aspect of their work, making visible the invisible work force of sea-borne international trade – four billion tons of goods transported by sea at the turn of the century increasing to 11 billion today. These are the men and women who literally keep the global economy moving.
In the last couple of weeks, anyone enjoying the sunshine on the Suffolk beach of Dunwich, perhaps thinking it should win the Today Programme favourite beach competition, could see on the horizon two bulky container ships stacking to go into Felixstowe. Giant vessels piled high with the typical 40 foot containers like a floating Lego housing estate. No romance of the restless sea there, just a couple of dozen crew members confined, isolated and separated for months from their families, seemingly close, definitely essential, invisible.