Tens of thousands of exhausted seafarers are trapped at sea in a humanitarian crisis that could spread and damage international trade and supply chains.
Many are abandoned due to border closures and immigration restrictions designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has also affected the regular change of crew members needed to keep ships running smoothly. There are around 1.2 million seafarers worldwide who participate in international trade routes.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were about 100,000 crew changes each month, and one sailor at sea was traded for another on board, said Esben Poulsson, president of the International Chamber of Transport.
Today, the number of crew changes is around 20,000 to 30,000 each month, Poulsson said.
“Right now, there are 200,000 seafarers who need to go home and there are 200,000 seafarers seated at home who need to get on board to replace those who go home,” Poulsson told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Tuesday.
According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), seafarers generally work four to six months on ships before a period of leave. At sea, they work shifts from 10 to 12 hours seven days a week.
But many have been working beyond their contractual terms in recent months as they cannot disembark. Those who need to board ships to work also face the problem of travel restrictions, as many would have to travel to another country for the crew change.
The International Labor Organization convention on maritime work states that the maximum continuous period that seafarers must serve on board an unlicensed ship is 11 months. But some seafarers have been working for 15 months in a row on ships during the pandemic, as they have been unable to disembark and go home.
‘Enough is enough’
While many stakeholders have lobbied hard for governments to allow crew changes and have designated them as key or essential workers, many are still trapped at sea.
The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and its affiliated unions said earlier this month that it will help seafarers “exercise their right to stop working, abandon ship and return home” when their contracts are in force. .
“If removing seafarers from these ships causes chaos in supply chains, if ports return from Singapore to San Francisco, and if this causes ship insurance providers to suspend their coverage and global trade to halt So that’s in the minds of politicians, not the world’s seafarers, “ITF Secretary General Steve Cotton said in a heavily worded statement. “Seafarers have done our part in this pandemic and much more. Enough is enough.”
Around 80% of the volume of world trade is carried out through commercial vessels that transport dry goods in bulk, containerized goods and energy products in tanker trucks.
With limited crew changes, the well-being, safety, health and mental well-being of seafarers are compromised.
“Seafarers are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, playing an essential role in maintaining the flow of vital goods, such as food, medicine and medical supplies,” said IMO. “However, the crisis has led to difficult working conditions for seafarers, including uncertainties and difficulties regarding access to ports, refueling, crew changes and repatriation.”
A German-owned oil tanker refused to sail unless replacement crews could be brought in, according to a recent Financial Times report citing industry executives and union representatives.
Governments must intervene
While there have been reports of seafarers’ takedown tools, most are working through contract extensions and charging for the work, Poulsson said.
But “we have a potential humanitarian and therefore commercial crisis on our hands and that is not an exaggeration,” said Poulsson.
The IMO is pressing governments to designate seafarers as “key workers”, a position that has been endorsed by the United Nations Secretary-General.
Some governments are beginning to allow crew changes at ports, subject to strict protocols such as quarantines.
Singapore, a shipping center, is a country that has facilitated crew changes. The city-state Maritime and Port Authority said on June 12 that it had approved the start and end of session for 4,000 crew members, involving 500 ships for more than 300 companies from March 27 to June 12.
But much remains to be done, and at a faster rate, Poulsson said.
“What this needs is a real cut of the bureaucracy, cutting all the talk and getting to work to deal with the situation,” he said.
Governments must “make seafarers an essential worker, and indeed are, value them, reduce visa restrictions and increase viable travel options so that we can increase the number of crew changes,” Poulsson said.