Ronbert Bibat had been trapped inside the rusty belly of a lumbering 39,000-tonne cargo ship for well over a year.
- Border restrictions designed to stall the spread of coronavirus have left around 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea
- Worldwide, there are more than 50,000 commercial vessels, many of which escape oversight by registering in tax havens
- Australian authorities have contributed to the predicament of these workers by failing to find a solution to allow for crew changeovers
“Four times we received the news that we can go home, but it suddenly got cancelled,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
He was one of 22 Filipino crew members confined to the bulk carrier MV Starlight as it crisscrossed the oceans, hauling coal, manganese ore and grains.
The 41-year-old seafarer longed to return to his wife and his two young daughters.
“My firstborn, next month she celebrates her birthday. She’s 15 years old,” he told the ABC from some remote point on the Pacific Ocean.
Mr Bibat worked seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day, sweeping ore and coal dust and scrubbing seven cargo holds, each as vast as an empty concert hall.
It was an exhausting, Sisyphean task that earned him about $400 a week for 80 hours of work — that’s less than $4 an hour.
His only respite came in his beige and pokey cabin, which resembles a room at a budget motel.
It’s what some seafarers call the Laminex Prison. But for Mr Bibat, it was also his haven.
“Every break-time I go to my cabin, I try to manage not to get bored, not to get frustrated, not to get depressed.”
His luggage was always left packed under his study desk, just in case he got the green light to return home.
A developing humanitarian crisis
After governments enforced border restrictions to stall the spread of coronavirus, around 400,000 seafarers like Mr Bibat were stranded at sea, unable to set foot on dry land.
With crew changes more difficult than ever, unions say there’s now a humanitarian crisis within eyesight from our shoreline.
“It’s against the law in this country for a seafarer to take a five-minute break on the wharf, and you could imagine what that does to their health, to their mental health,” said Dean Summers, the national coordinator for the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in Australia.
“For seafarers, it means you’re stuck on ships, to a degree where you can’t even get down the gangway and stand on the wharf.”
“I’m seeing seafarers now that have been on for 18 months without a day off.”
Just like Mr Bibat, thousands of seafarers are right now enduring the same degree of extended isolation and uncertainty with no end in sight.
‘That is slavery’
Only a select few can board the ships to speak to the foreign seafarers at Sydney’s sprawling Port Botany wharves.
One of those rare individuals is an Irish Catholic nun who has run a boutique chaplaincy for seafarers for nearly 30 years and operates out of a disused freight container.
“A lot of them don’t really know how things are going globally with the borders,” Sister Mary Leahy told Background Briefing,
“They’re always asking me, ‘Will I be able to go home? Is the border open?’ They’re not getting a lot of information.”
Inside her converted container, Christmas gift bags for seafarers line the walls three rows deep, each filled with free goodies like soap, biscuits, and donated clothes.
Sister Mary regards the crews stuck at sea as the victims of a culture of rampant commerce.
“What’s the greed that’s happening in society that these people somehow have to sacrifice their lives for other people?
“That is slavery. I think it is unacceptable.”
It’s a view endorsed by Dean Summers.
“If somebody has finished their contract and they want to go home and you force them to go back to sea, that’s slavery. It’s forced labour,” he added.
Australia has the fifth largest movement of shipping freight in the world.
And most things Australian businesses sell to the world — the rocks and crops that underpin the economy — are sent out on vessels like the MV Starlight.
Three-quarters of the stuff Australians import arrives by sea, too.
And yet Sister Mary said many Australians, who rely so heavily on this service, remain acutely unaware of seafarers’ contributions to our way of life.
“Gone [are] the days when they’ve gotten roaring drunk or something and the police have to bring them back,” Sister Mary joked. “At least people knew seafarers existed then.”
One young Indian seafarer spoke to Background Briefing from Papua New Guinea, where his Panamanian-flagged timber-loading ship was docked.
Vivek*, as we’ll call him, signed onto the mostly Vietnamese-crewed bulk carrier for nine months in Singapore, but he soon regretted the decision.
“This Vietnamese crew is not capable of working onboard,” Vivek said.
“They don’t know about safety, they don’t know about fire extinguishers. If there’s an emergency or fire on board, they don’t know about the fire plan.”
Eighteen months later, he and four other Indian crew started refusing to work.
Most seafarers work on cargo ships registered in countries that are notorious tax havens, under what is known in the maritime world as flying a “flag of convenience”.
There are more than 50,000 commercial vessels in the world: the flags of Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands account for around 40 per cent of the world’s shipping capacity.
“Everything about these ships that are flagged in these countries is deregulated, leaving seafarers even more vulnerable with fewer and fewer opportunities to stand up for themselves,” said the ITF’s Dean Summers.
Many resemble floating sweatshops: the seafarers who crew them are often paid less than $5 an hour and so they’re hired from countries where labour is really cheap.
Ronbert’s ship, the MV Starlight, used to be flagged in Liberia and now flies the flag of Cyprus.
It’s owned by a company incorporated in the Marshall Islands and managed by a Greek company called Eurobulk.
Crew changes on the company’s fleet are managed by Captain Matthaios Rigas.
“It’s very complicated, and to be honest I have spent endless nights and days of thinking, ‘How can we leave these people?'” he told Background Briefing from Athens.
Mr Rigas believes the solution to the impasse lies with governments like Australia’s, which have not been prepared to ensure the seafarers can take much-needed shore leave since the pandemic began.
“The maritime world is not fully prepared for performing crew changes under these circumstances.”
Last April, National Cabinet agreed that the Federal Government and all states and territories would implement an immediate exemption for non-cruise maritime crew that would allow them to get to and from work.
Then — much to the chagrin of the industry — it just never happened.
“We’re one of the few National Cabinet stories where it was a complete fail,” said Teresa Lloyd, the CEO of the shipping employer group Maritime Industry Australia.
“The idea that they come out with an agreement but then nobody actually holds to it was really disappointing.”
This is a rare situation where the employers and the unions find themselves in furious agreement.
Both say this is a massive logistical and humanitarian issue, and the Federal Government needs to be doing much more.
Most ports in Australia are owned by state and territory governments, and often managed by private companies, which can make replacing crew members during a pandemic a complex operation.
“Every time we talk to a state politician, they want guidance and leadership from the Federal Government,” said the ITF’s national coordinator Mr Summers.
“The Prime Minister is just shrugging his shoulders and saying, ‘Nothing to see here, we’re a bit busy, the states have got it in hand.’
“Well, the states are crying out for it.”
Federal Transport Minister Michael McCormack declined to be interviewed about the crew change crisis, saying this was mainly a state issue.
The ‘Green Lane’ solution
The only jurisdiction in Australia with an efficient solution in place for foreign crews is Queensland.
Here, seafarers are exempted from flight arrival caps, and one official enjoys unique powers that effectively give him authority over the state’s ports.
His name is Angus Mitchell and he’s the general manager of Maritime Safety Queensland.
While the Palaszczuk Government kept land borders closed for much of 2020, there was a different approach when it came to the cargo ports.
In late May, Mr Mitchell introduced a quarantine system allowing foreign ships to replenish their crews.
“When they finish their contracts and they get off on our ports, they go on to that dedicated and isolated bus that doesn’t interact with the population, into a hotel, and quarantine for whatever period necessary until their flights can take them home,” he said.
Since then, about 4,000 seafarers have gone through that system.
The ITF and shipowners agree the Queensland model has the potential to be expanded nationally, and matched in countries where seafarers live, like the Philippines.
This would create so-called “Green Lanes”: a network of border crossings that allow the free movement of seafarers.
“I think the concept of the Green Lane has a lot of merit and is one of several tools that could be implemented to facilitate, create change,” Ms Lloyd said.
“We have to accept that these people are essential workers and give them priority so that we can get them into the country.”
Last June, in response to the crew change crisis, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority increased the maximum period of service to 14 months.
The maximum time at sea is set to revert to 11 months in February next year.
If ships dock in Australia with crew kept any longer than the set maximum time at sea, AMSA can detain the ships until those crew have been sent home.
Three weeks ago, Ronbert Bibat finally had some good news to share.
“Maybe this is the happiest day of my life on the ship,” he beamed.
He had received his transit visa, his flight details, and his last salary for scrubbing and keeping watch on the MV Starlight.
After 15 months and 10 days at sea, Ronbert Bibat was going home.
“I’m feeling now a mix of happiness because I can go home and a little sadness because the other crew will remain.”
The next day he flew to Manila, where he spent four days in quarantine before a negative COVID test cleared him just in time to make his daughter’s 15th birthday party.
*Name has been changed.