They are the forgotten collateral damage of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 300,000 commercial ship workers, the lifeblood of global commerce, are now stranded on vessels because virus control measures and travel restrictions have prevented crew rotations. Some have been on board for 17 months, well past their contract terms and an 11-month legal maximum, barred not just from rejoining families but from getting ashore for recreation or even medical care. A similar number are at home without pay, unable to get to work. This is not just a humanitarian issue. Exhausted crews mean an increased risk of accidents that could harm people or the environment or threaten global supply chains.
With about 80 per cent of trade carried by ships, the world’s 2m merchant seafarers are vital to deliveries of everything from oil, gas and iron ore, to grain, fresh fruit, TVs and automobiles. Interruptions to shipments because of crew issues could affect commodities traders, retailers and manufacturers. Many ship workers are from lower-income Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Virus-related restrictions including visa, border and quarantine controls in the eight months since the virus emerged have blocked many normally routine crew changes. The problem is exacerbated by the fragmented nature of the industry, with a network of shipowners, operators, recruiting agencies and charterers operating across multiple jurisdictions, blurring lines of responsibility and liability.
The issue is now ringing alarm bells in business, industry and the investment community. Fidelity International, the $566bn asset manager, has this month sought to highlight the issue, contacting 30 companies in related industries and warning that, without action, it is “just a matter of time before something disastrous happens”. Chief executives of two dozen consumer groups including Nestle, Danone, Unilever, Tesco and PepsiCo last week signed a joint letter to UN secretary-general António Guterres, urging him to encourage governments to take immediate steps.
Mr Guterres called as far back as June on governments to designate commercial mariners “key workers” — giving them similar rights to airline or medical staff — and to implement protocols developed by UN agencies and other multilateral bodies to allow crew members to be repatriated and replaced. He renewed the call at last week’s UN general assembly. Only a handful of countries have so far granted key worker status. Many seem to fear ship workers could bring the virus ashore, though the International Chamber of Shipping, an industry body, says the virus risk is “relatively low” as shipping companies have strict protections in place.
Granting essential worker status is an important first step, but no magic bullet. With many commercial flights still restricted or suspended, getting seafarers on to and off ships will require complex logistical efforts across the industry. The World Economic Forum has urged a “great reset” at sea. France at the UN last week proposed compiling a global list of ports that can be secured to allow crew changes. Kenya called for costs to be shared globally of a rapid testing programme at large ports.
This is, above all, an issue that neither governments nor companies alone can solve, but where they, and international agencies, must co-operate and co-ordinate their actions. As last week’s CEOs’ letter noted, the current situation has “inadvertently created a modern form of forced labour”. Yet these are the usually hidden workers who make globalisation work. They deserve to be treated much better.