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Will pandemic change the perception of seafarers?

From the News Desk:
Adam Sharpe 02 Dec 2020

Shipping should emerge from the pandemic with a better understanding of seafarer needs

Speakers at this week’s Lloyd’s List Shipping Outlook 2021 forum believe that the coronavirus pandemic will improve the perception of seafarers and will lead to a greater focus on the people that keep shipping moving. Nevertheless, the crew-change crisis still drags on

SHIPPING groups have once again been highlighting the plight of seafarers stuck on vessels around the world due to the travel restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The four largest shipping trade bodies wrote an open letter to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos late last week, challenging him to recognise the crucial role seafarers play in making retail events such as Black Friday possible.

The letter, jointly signed by the chairpersons of BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping, Intercargo and Intertanko, called on Mr Bezos to use his “unparalleled influence” to push for the public recognition of seafarers as key workers and champion their cause at the highest levels of government.

With the peak holiday season approaching, the industry has turned its focus towards prominent business people such as Mr Bezos as seafarers “have continued to transport the goods needed to satisfy the demand generated by platforms including Amazon”.

Attempts to find a global solution via the International Maritime Organization and governments around the world have thus far failed to deliver the desired results.

However, the UN General Assembly has now passed a resolution calling on governments to designate seafarers and other maritime personnel as key workers and to implement measures allowing crew changes and ensuring medical care.

The result of a survey published by officers’ union Nautilus International earlier this week found that morale among crew is being detrimentally affected by the pandemic, while a “shocking” number are considering leaving the industry entirely.

The group has launched a petition calling on governments and industry to class seafarers as essential workers, declaring: “Seafarers deliver Christmas. This Christmas, deliver seafarers home.”

Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said despite “exceptional” industry co-operation, “you do detect that all of our nerves are getting frayed… just because of the longevity of the crisis”.

While progress has been made in Europe, India and elsewhere, there were still about 400,000 seafarers unable either to sign on or off ships, although this includes some churn from crew changes taking place.

Mr Dickinson said after-effects of the crisis were also starting to appear, such as the high number of returned seafarers wanting to take accrued leave, making it hard to find relievers for those still on board.

“It does feel as if things are starting to move in the right direction… but there is still a lot to be concerned about,” he said in an interview.

Speakers at the Lloyd’s List 2021 Shipping Outlook forum this week highlighted the positive moves by the industry in handling the crisis and speculated that the lasting legacy of the pandemic could be a better perception of crews and their needs.

Mark O’Neil, chief executive of Columbia Shipmanagement, said morale on his ships “has never been higher”.

“I don’t buy into the story of 400,000 crew members out there desperate to get ashore,” Mr O’Neil explained. “A great deal of effort has been put in to getting them home.

“There has been too much attention on digitalisation. Before the crisis, the tail was wagging the dog. Now, the focus is back on our people.”

That sentiment was echoed by Grahaeme Henderson, vice-president of shipping and maritime at Shell International. However, neither speaker thought the crew-change crisis had elevated the profile of shipping among the general public very much.

This was also the view held by respondents to polls run by Lloyd’s List in the run-up to the Shipping Outlook forum.

Asked the question ‘How much has the crew change crisis altered the perception of the shipping industry?’, some 48.45% of respondents voted ‘very marginally’, followed by 35.36% agreeing that the crisis has meant seafarers are now regarded as key workers. Only 16.18% believed that the crew change crisis has raised the profile of shipping in the eyes of the general public.