Thursday, September 10, 2020

Critical Case of Stranded Seafarers Turns from Humanitarian Crisis to Vital Supply Chain Failure

Six Months of Uncoordinated Covid Quarantines Leaves Potential Shortage of Essentials
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – It seems the dreadful pressures for many seafarers continue as a wide sweep of varying virus preventative regulations stop many crews from coming off duty and returning home, whilst others twiddle their thumbs in hotels and hostels awaiting the chance to start their contracts aboard. Latest to join the campaign to see fair play is the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF).

Ian Wright CBE, chief executive of the FDF, says food and drink has kept flowing into the UK from Europe thanks to government interventions allowing the movement of lorry drivers. But he notes that imports from further afield, that rely on transportation by sea, could soon be affected if governments around the world don’t take action to ease the burden on seafarers.

Amongst the items at risk he lists tea, coffee, sugar, bananas, spices, certain spirits, and wines from the New World. Wright says:

“It seems illogical that lorry drivers have been acknowledged since the start of the crisis as key workers and entitled to travel across borders. Yet seafarers, playing the same role at sea, are not afforded the same status.

“We should all be clear that seafarers enable the movement of vital products around the globe, not just food and drink but medicines and other household items. In fact, 90% of goods are transported by sea. They are the unsung heroes of global trade.”

Graham Westgarth, vice president of the UK Chamber of Shipping and CEO of ship management company V.Group, points out his industry has tirelessly lobbied governments around the world to have seafarers recognised as key workers but is exasperated by the refusal of some to act, saying:

“The UK government has done its best to lead on this issue. In July the Department for Transport organised an international summit on crew changes and pledged to urgently resolve the situation, but many countries failed to participate so the crisis continues.

“The media was happy to cover the plight of holiday makers and crew stuck on board cruise ships but has paid scant attention to the 300,000 seafarers currently marooned at sea, unable to disembark, and their 300,000 counterparts who are stranded ashore, unable to start their contracts and who are, therefore, without income.

“Many of those on board haven’t stepped off their vessel for well over a year. Just consider that for a moment. This isn’t just an economic crisis, it’s a humanitarian one and it has the potential to get much worse. There have already been reports of crews downing tools in exasperation. If others follow suit then the issues we are currently facing will seem small in comparison. It really is a desperate situation, a ticking time bomb.”

The warning is supported by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which represents 1.4 million seafarers working aboard cargo ships. ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton says global supply chains, including those for critical products like food and medicines, are at risk of disruption as seafarers increasingly take matters into their own hands by exercising their right to stop working at the end of their contracts.

Cotton has spoken out consistently since the start of the crisis and is disillusioned at the lack of action. Now he says:

“Until now this has been a humanitarian crisis for the seafarers trapped working at sea but not for the consumers or patients ashore who rely on these supply lines. As we approach the six-month mark of this intolerable situation, seafarers will reach for drastic action to end their floating misery and get back to their families. More ships being stopped, more risk of accidents with tired and fatigued crew, more detentions and MLC breaches means more disruption to critical supply chains.”

Another spurred to speak was UK Chamber of Shipping chief executive Bob Sanguinetti who echoed the concerns of all sectors of industry saying:

“Seafarers have been the unsung heroes of global trade during coronavirus. Ships and their crews have kept supplies coming into the UK, ensuring we have enough food, medicines and essential goods. But this has come at a cost. Since the start of the pandemic we have seen many countries shut down their borders. The time for talking is over, we need action now from governments to allow crew changes to take place.”

Finally Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), is another who recognises the urgency of the situation, commenting:

“This issue is a ticking time bomb. Seafarers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to keep food flowing, medical supplies delivered and supply chains open. The system is at full stretch and governments across the world need to recognise this emerging risk. They need to designate seafarers as key workers and facilitate crew change before it’s too late”.

In the UK alone over 50% of food comes from overseas including vast quantities of fruit, meat, fish, grains and milk products, all of which arrive by sea. Over 5 billion bananas are eaten annually, equating to 100 per person, yet the special status of seafarers is ignored, unlike those of lorry drivers travelling on RoRo vessels. It will surely be one of the first jobs for the country’s new Shipping Minister to attend to.