Ship workers left at sea by the MIQ booking system say the Government is breaking an international agreement

The Government has abandoned ship, according to New Zealand seafarers working across the world.

A group of seafarers have organised a petition calling for the allocation of a small amount of rooms in MIQ for ship workers trying to make it home.

NZ Seafarers said the New Zealand Government has neglected the needs of the industry, despite it being a lifeline to the outside world for an island nation in a remote corner of the world.

Brendan Wade, NZ Seafarers spokesperson, said potentially thousands of Kiwis are stuck in limbo on ships and in ports across the world, and the only answer from the Government is to keep refreshing the MIQ booking system.

He said it is not only heart-breaking, but also legally wrong.

The New Zealand Government ratified the Maritime Labour Convention in 2016, setting minimum standards to address the health, safety and welfare of seafarers on commercial vessels – including the right to repatriation.

The convention came into force in March 2017, applying to around 890 foreign commercial ships visiting New Zealand annually, and approximately 30 New Zealand ships.

However, without a clear path home for seafarers marooned off-shore, Wade believes the Government is failing to live up to the commitments it made.

“They agreed to give seafarers unimpeded access to repatriation,” Wade said. “The response from ministers has generally been that they have met their obligations and seafarers just need to join the MIQ queue.”

But it’s not so simple for people out on ships, who may have spotty access to the internet and limited time to sit on the booking website.

And according to Wade, this has wider ramifications on seafarers’ careers.

“They’re increasingly finding themselves stuck illegally overseas,” he said. “And if you get caught, that’s the end of your career in that country.”

He said ships may require crew to disembark at the next port when their contract finishes – and with no clear way home from many ports, this puts them in a difficult position, potentially breaking immigration laws.

“We’ve raised it with the human rights commission,” Wade said. “The Government is effectively asking us to break international law.”

And they are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, as things aren’t much easier for seafarers who are able to stay aboard their contracted ships.

“The mental stress of being at sea is huge when you’re doing a normal job,” Wade said. “But imagine being nine months at sea when you expected it to be three – you’d go a bit stir-crazy, especially if you’re not working.”

Wade said New Zealanders have traditionally been in high demand as seafarers.

“We are highly sought-after in the industry,” he said. “We can provide skilled labour, and we have a reputation of being easy to work with.”

But the fact that Kiwis can’t get home is discouraging would-be employers from taking them on.

Because ship companies have a duty of care to help their workers return home after their contracts, by no fault of their own, New Zealanders come loaded with the baggage of an impending logistical nightmare come clocking-out time.

“It’s getting to the point where companies don’t want to hire us because it’s too difficult,” Wade said. They are legally-bound to do something that over and over again proves to be near impossible – getting a Kiwi home.

The frustration of seeing this affect friends on ships convinced Wade to contact other seafarers through social media, and organise in protest as Seafarers New Zealand.

The group is petitioning the Government to set aside a rolling 20 rooms in MIQ for seafarers to come home, claiming the MIQ booking system is too rigid and ill-equipped to deal with the unpredictable nature of seafaring.

The current system expects seafarers to book a spot in advance – despite voyage dates often changing due to factors well out of the their control, such as weather, shipping movements, mechanical issues, political turmoil – or a global pandemic.

Wade said government advice has been to apply for emergency allocation.

While the Government has approved more than 2000 emergency allocation vouchers since last October, the strict criteria for an emergency allocation doesn’t cover seafarers.

This means they are likely to be denied a spot – leaving them at sea, figuratively and literally.

What’s more galling to Wade is when they ask the Government if anything is being done to fix the issue, the response has been that there are a number of important industries in the same boat.

But Wade disagrees with this, saying seafarers are uniquely affected by Covid and the border restrictions.

“The hard part is conveying the importance of the industry,” he said. “But it’s us taking the risk of being out there in the world to make sure there’s food arriving here.”

This comes as more and more Kiwis stuck overseas are rocking the boat of the MIQ system.

Grounded Kiwis, a network of frustrated New Zealanders caught in the MIQ dead end, formed last week to demand changes to the system.

“We’ve had enough. New Zealanders at home and abroad cannot exercise their right of return,” said spokesperson Alexandra Birt. “Grounded Kiwis understand the importance of keeping New Zealand safe; we just want a system that works.”

Wade said he acknowledged the difficulty of running a system like MIQ, and was impressed with the work it has done to keep the country safe.

“I understand it’s something that was built on the fly,” he said.

But almost 500 days on from its formation, this is no longer a system on its baby steps. Or at least in the eyes of activists such as Grounded Kiwis, it shouldn’t be.

Meanwhile, joint Head of Managed Isolation and Quarantine Brigadier Rose King defended the system’s fairness, saying people with limited time or internet access could always enlist the help of family or a travel agent.

“MBIE recognises that not everybody has access to a computer or mobile device, reliable internet, the availability to spend time securing a voucher, or is comfortable using an online service,” King said. “For this reason MIAS was developed in a way that allows third parties to book vouchers on behalf of others using their own log-in details.  Third parties can include reputable companies such as established travel agencies, or a person the traveller trusts such as a family member or friend.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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