Inside the gates of Victoria’s Port of Portland, out of public view, unfolds the plight of the international seamen who work aboard cargo ships importing and exporting goods around the world.
For the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, seafarers haven’t been allowed off their ships any further than this long, empty gangway.
The Ocean Jubilee has been loading wheat grain from Victoria’s west for the past nine days.
But its crew of 20 haven’t set foot in the town or even in the port’s Mission to Seafarers centre, a special respite room for international seamen.
Kevin Hernando and his crew are Filipino and have been away from their families for seven months.
“You feel homeless, homesick.”
During the months at sea, what the crew say they most look forward to is disembarking from the ship in each new port, to see the sights, buy a phone card to call home, and refresh their minds.
“Before, [when there was] no pandemic, you will go visit a seaman centre like that [Portland’s Mission to Seafarers], you will go sightseeing, shopping,” Mr Hernando said.
But for two years, the seafarers’ only link to Portland’s comforts has been via one man: Neville Manson.
Mr Manson runs the Mission to Seafarers centre inside the Port of Portland, just 100 metres from the gangway.
It temporarily shut at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and has been closed since.
“Seafarers haven’t been able to come to the centre … haven’t been able to leave their ship,” Mr Manson said.
Mr Manson has been accepting orders from crews for fresh groceries, treats and items like phone cards.
He often makes several trips a day buying and delivering items, and is showered in thanks from the men who would otherwise have no way of accessing these prized goods.
Port of Portland chief executive Greg Tremewen said the port conducted a six-month study of ships arriving at the city in 2021 and found that most ships had been out at sea for an average of 17 days.
Mr Tremewen said the port would be open to helping the seafarers get vaccinated.
“We haven’t been approached at this point but we’re always happy to help out where we can,” he said.
‘They want to be vaccinated’
After two years of their prohibited movement, Mr Manson is advocating for the international seafarers to be allowed an hour or two of recreation in his centre.
“If seafarers were vaccinated, then they should be able to leave their vessels again, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Mr Manson is also advocating for seafarers to have access to vaccines.
He said he had emailed Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Minister for Ports, but received no reply.
“I’ve sent off letters to government ministers, to DHHS, and those have not had a reply at all, which is really frustrating.”
Mr Manson said some of the seafarers he met were desperate for a COVID-19 vaccine, telling him that supplies in their country of origin were low and they had no way to access protection.
“They know they’re not going to be able to come off unless they’re double-vaxxed and we wouldn’t expect them to come off unless they were double-vaxxed, as well,” he said.
Filipino seaman Kevin Hernando said while most of his crew were vaccinated, four of them missed out due to restricted supplies in the Philippines.
“Supply is locked, there is a lack of suppliers,” he said.
“We hope that when we go back [to Portland] again, we can go ashore, very much,” Mr Hernando said.
The DHHS declined to comment, saying it was a matter for the Department of Transport.
The ABC contacted Victoria’s Minister for Ports Melissa Horne who declined an interview. Instead, this statement was sent from her office:
“The welfare of the entire seafaring workforce is an important issue and we are working closely with the Port of Portland and other employers to support the vaccination of international seafarers against coronavirus.
“We recognise the hard work the ports and freight sector has been doing to support all Victorians throughout the pandemic and keep the supply chain open.”
The shadow minister for ports and Member for South West Victoria, Roma Britnell, said it was time for the Victorian government to help get the seafarers vaccinated.
“Because they’re not Victorian citizens, they’re not a priority for the government, but I don’t think that’s very Australian, I don’t think that’s very caring,” she said.
“It’s a pretty awful situation to be stuck on a boat out at sea for that long, to come into port, berthing, but not allowed to come onshore,” Ms Britnell said.
The role of seafarers
Mr Manson said the seafarers did essential work, but that wasn’t well understood by the public.
But it is their human struggle, rather than their usefulness to the supply chain, that Mr Manson is most concerned with.
“A basic seafarer’s wage is about $800 US for a month’s work. So it’s no big pay,” he said.
“The majority of that will be sent home to their family.
“They work 24/7. At any one time, half the crew are sleeping, half the crew are working, and they get very little free time.
“The guys desperately need to come ashore, they need some sort of respite.”
Mr Manson said the Portland economy was also taking a hit from the restrictions.
Before the pandemic, the mission ran 13 shuttle bus trips a day to take visitors into town to see the sights and do some shopping.
Beanies and kindness
In the meantime, Mr Manson tries to buoy the spirits of the would-be international visitors by fetching them fresh grapes and phone cards and delivering his simple “welfare packs” to each crew member.
He stuffs dozens of bags with soaps, deodorants, toothbrushes, packets of chips, magazines, even donated t-shirts.
Each seafarer also receives a hand-knitted beanie made by Portland residents.
Mr Manson said the beanies were very popular with the seafarers, who often came from tropical places but travelled into deep winter and found themselves colder than they had ever been.
Mr Manson believes these small acts of kindness reflect the culture of Portland.
“The Port’s a major part of the town, it has been for over 50 years,” he said.
Back on the empty gangway, the Ocean Jubilee awaits departure and Mr Manson delivers a load of welfare packs to the crew, receiving joyful thanks from the excited seamen.
“Thank you so much sir!” they all chorus.
One man FaceTimes his wife and four children while he excitedly rummages through the welfare packs.
He introduces them to his “tall white friend” Neville, who always comes bearing gifts.
“He is the guy! He’s the one, say hello!” the man tells his family in the Philippines.
The children wave at Mr Manson, who smiles behind his mask and waves back.
Mr Manson drives back to town, getting ready for the next crew to arrive.
“That’s what makes it all worthwhile, seeing the smile on their face and how happy they are,” he said.