Resig Calanog, a sailor from the Philippines poses while on shore leave in the Old port of Montreal, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Calanog’s walk around Montreal’s port is only the second time in nine months he’s been on solid ground. Even for a career ship worker, it’s a lot of time at sea. But as for when he’ll be able to walk in his homeland in the Philippines, and see his three children, that remains uncertain. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Resig Calanog, a sailor from the Philippines poses while on shore leave in the Old port of Montreal, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Calanog’s walk around Montreal’s port is only the second time in nine months he’s been on solid ground. Even for a career ship worker, it’s a lot of time at sea. But as for when he’ll be able to walk in his homeland in the Philippines, and see his three children, that remains uncertain. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

No easy way home for seafarers delivering goods to Canadian ports during pandemic

Transport Canada has allowed shore leave, worked on a welfare committee for seafarers

Resig Calanog’s walk around Montreal’s port is only the second time in nine months he’s been on solid ground.

Even for a career ship worker, it’s a lot of time at sea. As for when he’ll be able to walk in his homeland in the Philippines and see his three children, that remains uncertain.

“Soon, I hope,” he said.

Calanog, 36, is one of hundreds of thousands of ship workers around the world who have been thrown in limbo by the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve been confined to their vessels and can’t spend leisure time ashore while international travel restrictions have made it complicated and difficult for shipping companies to replace crews.

Peter Lahay, the Canadian co-ordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, estimates some 400,000 seafarers around the world are currently past the end of their contracts because they have no way to get home.

Many countries that supply large numbers of seafarers, such as India, have grounded commercial flights and imposed travel restrictions, forcing shipping companies to charter planes or send their employees on a costly and circuitous journey through several countries.

Lahay says seafarers are used to working contracts of up to 11 months — the maximum allowed under international maritime conventions. But he estimates between 40 and 50 per cent of them have been away from home longer than that.

“When you start pushing it up to 16 or 17 months with no end in sight, for many of them, it’s an enormous struggle for them emotionally,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re getting lots of emails saying they’re breaking down and their fatigue levels are so high it’s affecting their job performance.”

Calanog is hopeful he’ll be replaced at the next stop in Rotterdam, but it’s not a sure thing.

“If they change me, success!” he said.

While he’s eager to see his family in the Philippines, he’s grateful to be working at a time when many people at home are unemployed due to COVID-19. And once he returns home, he says he’ll worry about getting stuck there and missing out on another contract.

His fellow shipmate, Ian Cartagena, says the company that owns the chemical tanker on which they’ve been working has been urging them to be patient. Cartagena says he believes the company is doing the best it can to get them home.

“I understand it’s hard,” he said.

Lahay says some companies are trying to “move heaven and earth” to get their seafarers home. Others, he said, have been unwilling to assume the expense and the logistical headache, knowing that seafarers, who work on contract, are reluctant to complain for fear of losing future work.

“These seafarers are lawfully entitled to go home, but they’re afraid to ask to go home because they believe, with good reason, that they could be blacklisted from the industry,” Lahay said.

The problem is compounded by the fact many sailors haven’t stepped off their ships for months and have been denied shore leave by their host countries, or, more often, by their employers, who fear they’ll bring the virus aboard.

Calanog and Cartagena are lucky. They were able to get four hours of shore leave, including a trip to Walmart to pick up snacks, video games and essential items.

It’s a welcome change, Cartagena said. “Sometimes you need to refresh, have a conversation with some other people.”

When they’re not on the chemical tanker, they stop by Mariners’ House, a kind of clubhouse in Montreal’s port for seafarers, which is run by chaplains and financed by the port and by the shipping companies.

Normally in August, the place would be filled with staff from cruise ships and from commercial vessels who come to shoot pool, buy supplies and souvenirs, or sit and chat with the chaplains of the Ministry to Seafarers, a religious organization linked to the Christian Reformed Church. On this day, however, Calanog and his two friends are the only ones there.

David Rozeboom, a chaplain with the Ministry for 13 years, estimates less than half of the ships that dock in Montreal are allowing their crews to come ashore.

Lately, much of his job has consisted of running errands such as buying socks and toothpaste, and wiring money home for those who aren’t allowed to, or are too fearful of COVID-19 to get off the ship.

Rozeboom doesn’t share a religion with most of the seafarers he meets, most of whom come from India, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe. Especially now, he says, the majority are more interested in discussing local news than spiritual matters.

But he says he’s happy to help how he can, whether it’s sending a wire transfer or climbing aboard a ship to have a friendly chat with a group of Indian seafarers in the mess hall.

“They’re an unseen group of essential workers inaccessible to a large part of the population, and it just happens we were serving them before, and now we have a different way of serving them,” Rozeboom said.

Lahay says the crew-change situation has only worsened in recent months, despite efforts from countries such as Canada.

He had praise for Transport Canada, which he said has allowed shore leave, has worked on a welfare committee for seafarers, and is collaborating with different partners to help accelerate visa processing and facilitate crew switches.

But despite rising international awareness, Lahay said he believes there could be 400,000 seafarers working beyond contract at the moment, compared to 200,000 in July.

While there are no easy answers to getting them home, Lahay says countries, including Canada, need to be more strict in enforcing rules governing the treatment of seafarers and to crack down on the many companies flouting them.

“We have to draw a line in the sand, because nothing’s going to change until we do,” he said.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
110 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Provincial health officers announced 1,005 new cases throughout B.C.

Black Crow Cannabis is just one of Vernon's many pot shops now open in town. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Kelowna has highest cannabis fees in Okanagan

Vernon’s 14 stores pay second highest business licence fees

Serving alcohol has been altered in the Central Okanagan Public Schools policy regarding rental of school facilities for after-school hours events. (Contributed)
Alcohol option opened up at Central Okanagan school facilities rented for events

Central Okanagan Board of Education retains final approval for after-hours event approvals

Voting day for the upcoming Central Okanagan Board of Education by-election is June 26. (Contributed)
Central Okanagan school board election set for June 26

Kelowna voters will go the polls to fill vacant Kelowna trustee seat

Two bikes that were stolen after a West Kelowna parking garage was looted on April 3. Photo: Crime Stoppers Central Okanagan
Parking garage looted in West Kelowna

A car was broken into and six storage lockers were ransacked

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Black Press Media Weekly Roundup: Top headlines this week

Here’s a quick roundup of the stories that made headlines across the Okanagan, from April 11 to 16

Penticton bylaw officers tore down a “pretty significantly sized” homeless camp underneath the bridge near Riverside Drive Friday, April 16 morning. (Brennan Phillips - Western News)
Penticton bylaw tears down ‘significantly sized’ homeless camp under bridge

Many residents had made complaints about the camp before it was torn down

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

Premier John Horgan receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy in James Bay Thrifty’s Foods in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets AstraZeneca shot, encourages others

27% of residents in B.C. have now been vaccinated against COVID-19

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Ford F-350s have been targeted in the North Okanagan by auto thieves since February 2021, Vernon North Okanagan RCMP data shows. (Gene J. Puskar - The Canadian Press/AP file)
Auto thieves target older Ford F-350s in Vernon: RCMP

Vernon Mounties remind all motorists no vehicle is immune to auto crime

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Most Read