Sailors aboard ships laden with Australia coal who have been stranded off China’s coast for months on end are “prisoners” of a trade war between the two countries, a union body says.
The estimated 1600 seafarers aboard 80 ships carrying the cargo are suffering with “no end in sight”, according to the Australian co-ordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation, Dean Summers.
“Seafarers have now been on there, for some as long as 20 months without a day off,” Mr Summers says.
“They’re just sitting outside the harbours in China and all they want to do is go in and discharge their coal and go back into the international market, but China’s not taking them and they won’t allow those ships to go to other countries to crew change.
“Those seafarers are really prisoners of war.”
Australian coal exports to China were worth $14 billion in 2019.
The seafarers are among 400,000 already stuck on ships around the world as due to the COVID-19 crisis there is no opportunity to disembark, fly home and do a crew swap.
But the trade stoush with China, which has unofficially banned Australian coal since October, “has added insult to injury”, Mr Summers says.
“China has started this some months ago, maybe five or six months ago, by preventing coal ships – that’s international ships laden with Australian coal – from coming into their harbours and discharging their coal.”
Mr Summers said seafarers were already exhausted due to their inability to get off the ships because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s a crisis on top of a crisis, if you like,” he said.
“Sixteen hundred seafarers are suffering terribly and there’s no end in sight.”
The sailors are primarily from developing nations including India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
Mr Summers said they are “at their wits’ end”.
“They’ve been there working every single day, sometimes, usually up to 12 hours a day for 20 months, away from their families at the most tumultuous time.
“It is just tortuous.”
Mr Summers says the Australian government should lobby to help alleviate the crew’s suffering.
It should also push China to agree to let those ships exit the queue and go to Japan, for example, he said, so they can change over and bring a fresh crew on board before re-entering the queue.
“Something’s got to be done and China’s got to be told,” he said.
“Humanitarian rights aren’t high on China’s agenda but this is an international issue brought on deliberately by China to bring some sort of leverage to the trade war.
“Let these guys go, do your trade war with Australia, if that’s what’s going to happen, but don’t make people deliberately suffer – it’s a horrible thing.”
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been contacted for comment.