Jeff Engels could sense the despair in the two seafarers wondering whether they’ll ever get home.
The crewmen had only been informed the day before that they wouldn’t be disembarking in Tacoma as planned despite one being aboard 13 months instead of a planned nine and the other for eight months instead of six.
“You could tell they’d just given up,’’ said Engels, who is helping repatriate some of the estimated 300,000 workers trapped aboard container ships and other sea vessels amid global pandemic restrictions. “They were very quiet and not saying much. There was no fight in them. Usually, they’re fighting to get off the boat and angry about it.”
Engels, the Seattle-based West Coast coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) — a trade group encompassing more than 670 unions from 18 nations — was inspecting working conditions on the Liberian-flagged MV Bellatrix container vessel on July 29. Only five of seven crew members expecting to disembark after being onboard for periods approaching a year or more without relief were allowed off.
Engels gave the two Filipino crewmen left behind a pep talk and hope of eventually getting off the ship so they can fly home, but only after an additional 3 1/2-week wait until it reaches Incheon, South Korea.
Roughly 90% of global trade takes place because of maritime transport involving 1.65 million seafarers, their work especially critical during a COVID-19 pandemic threatening supply lines. The seafarers are responsible for operating, maintaining and repairing oceangoing vessels while navigating often-treacherous waters.
But governments have been slow in reacting to the plight of workers trapped on ships months longer than agreed-to contracts, as have some ship owners unwilling to foot the considerable cost of repatriating them until their vessels are much closer to their home countries.
“These guys are all sending messages to their wives and their kids, telling them ‘I’m coming home! I’m coming home!’ And then boom! — they don’t get to go,” Engels said. “It’s heartbreaking and it’s going on all over the world.”
Some workers have reported feeling coerced into signing contract extensions. There have even been reports of suicides by crew members stranded on ships well past their contract expirations.
If enough seafarers refused to keep working, their ships could be prevented from leaving some ports because each vessel has minimum crew requirements for safety. Such refusals are rare, largely because seafarers — many hailing from Third World nations — fear being blacklisted for future work.
This past week, three vessels remained stalled off the coast of Australia because seafarers — one said to have been aboard for 17 months — well beyond their original contracts refused to do additional work and are demanding repatriation.
Greg Whitehouse, 68, a retired seafarer living in Port Angeles, said what stranded workers worldwide are enduring is inhumane. Whitehouse spent 34 years working primarily aboard ocean-crossing tugboats and container ships and said what got him through his three- to six-month stints was knowing his exact return date.
“It’s just inherently dangerous and stressful, but there was an end in sight,” Whitehouse said, adding he’d had seven near-fatal mishaps. “But with these guys, having no end date, I just can’t imagine that.”
Being at sea, he added, can bring feelings of freedom but also depressing isolation when things go bad. Some crew members dislike each other and only tolerate the situation knowing it will be over in a few months. Relationship issues back home are also commonplace — he once had a girlfriend move out on him and get married before he returned from being at sea — and there’s a feeling of helplessness being trapped on a ship with limited ability to communicate with loved ones other than by text message or calls when within internet and cellphone range.
Whitehouse and a shipmate used to mark off a daily calendar to boost their spirits once halfway through a 90-day tour.
“And that was just for three months away,” he said. “These guys we’re hearing about have been away nine, 10 and even 12 months or longer.”
Despite a hastily arranged virtual summit last month in which more than 12 seafaring nations — including the U.S. — agreed to ease border restrictions and increase commercial flights to get stranded seafarers home, the process remains burdened by red tape. Engels said he’s encountered dock officials uncertain of government policy and a lack of coordination between federal agencies to speed up repatriation.
The workers can only get off once ship owners arrange to have equal replacement crew members ready to board at the same port in order to maintain minimum safety requirements.
Of the five Bellatrix crew members let off the ship in Tacoma in late July, four were Eastern European and already had visas to enter the U.S. temporarily during the course of their sea work — enabling them to disembark unaccompanied for onward flights home. The fifth did not have a visa, so the ship needed to request special “parole” for him from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol ahead of time, send copies of his passport and flight itinerary to the agency, then pay for private “safeguarding” until he could fly from Seattle to London, then onward to Romania.
They were the lucky ones. Engels said protocols like parole can be time-consuming and costly for ships to coordinate, so some don’t try.
The week before the Bellatrix arrived in Tacoma, another Filipino crew member reached out to Engels on WhatsApp — a private texting system preferred by workers for anonymity because they fear reprisals from shipping companies — pleading to get off the ship.
“Please, can you help me? I want to go home!” he texted on July 17, adding that he had a visa and an expired contract.
Though the ship had 14 workers with expired or expiring contracts, the crew member said he’d been told only seven replacements had been found and he couldn’t leave. “I don’t believe (it) … plenty (of) seafarers (are) looking for jobs,” he texted.
Engels, who handles Puget Sound port inspections for the ITF and oversees their inspectors in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, replied to the seafarer that he would pressure the shipping company. The Times reviewed the texts of seafarers quoted in this story, but attempts to contact them separately for an interview were unsuccessful.
Engels spent that week pushing for the company’s agent to relieve any crew wanting to exit, but then got word July 23 from a different crew member that nothing was changing.
“Hello Mr. Jeff, our company says that we cannot disembark because we don’t have U.S. Visas,” he texted Engels. “Unfortunately, it will be hard to disembark on the way back in Asia due to plenty (of) restrictions. In this case, we will stay onboard several months more.”
Then, as the ship neared port, a Ukrainian worker planning to disembark in Tacoma texted Engels on July 28 that the two Filipino workers initially scheduled to leave had been told they could no longer do so. The Ukrainian worker wrote that he still hoped to disembark as planned.
When Engels wished him luck, the seaman replied with an emoji of two hands clasped in a praying position.
A representative at the Seattle office of Inchcape Shipping Services, the local agent handling logistics for the Bellatrix, could not be reached for comment.
The ship eventually anchored offshore from the grain-distribution facility it was picking up cargo from. A small launch boat was sent out to deliver the replacement crew members and gather the workers being relieved — including the Ukrainian — to bring ashore. Only after that was the vessel permitted to dock at the distribution facility, at which point Engels boarded to check on the two Filipino workers left behind.
Engels was told the two were barred from leaving because of a backlog of other seafarers trying to fly home from Los Angeles, a main hub of direct travel to the Philippines from the U.S.
The Bellatrix left Tacoma last Monday. Engels has made arrangements with others aboard the ship to notify him when it nears an anticipated Aug. 22 arrival in South Korea. At that point, he’ll advise his ITF contact in that country so he can facilitate getting the crewmen off and onward to the Philippines — where they face additional 14-day quarantines in hotels before being allowed home.
The ITF is helping workers gain telehealth access to psychologists to gauge their mental state and help them through their ordeal.
Engels said the U.S. is far ahead of some nations in trying to resolve matters, but he’d like better communication among U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, shipping companies, their agents and his organization.
“Regulatory bodies and the people in the industry need to have a better way of communicating,” Engels said. “Because I get these goofy WhatsApp texts at 3 in the morning from these seafarers and I don’t really have the whole story and have to figure out if they really are stranded.”
He feels the largest shipping companies are mostly trying to get workers home, but that some smaller ones placing profit over seafarers’ mental health should face added pressure from authorities.
“Compared to places like Russia and all of South America it’s not that bad here — they’re trying,” Engels said. “But it’s just awkward. They stumble, people bump heads and the seafarers suffer.”