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How global Covid-19 policy failures leave seafarers to suffer

How global Covid-19 policy failures leave seafarers to suffer
David Dodwell 9 Jul, 2021

The seafarers who staff the world’s merchant vessels and keep its supply chains running have been plunged into an unprecedented crisis during the pandemic

Border closures, port lockdowns, travel protocols, quarantines and visa restrictions have created a nightmare for seafarers stuck at sea or unemployed at home

Seafarers arrive for a crew change at Hoi Fai Road Promenade in Tai Kok Tsui on July 26, 2020. Photo: Edmond So Seafarers arrive for a crew change at Hoi Fai Road Promenade in Tai Kok Tsui on July 26, 2020. Photo: Edmond So
Seafarers arrive for a crew change at Hoi Fai Road Promenade in Tai Kok Tsui on July 26, 2020. Photo: Edmond So

On Wednesday, the now-infamous Ever Given container ship headed for Rotterdam. After blocking the Suez Canal for six days
in March and snarling global sea trade, it weighed anchor after being impounded through a three-month compensation dispute between the Suez Canal Authority and the ship’s Japanese owner Shoei Kisen Kaisha.

Lloyd’s List said at the time that the Ever Given blockage cost an estimated US$9.6 billion per day of trade along a waterway that carries over 10 per cent of global sea cargo. The Suez Canal Authority sued the ship’s owners
for almost US$1 billion over revenue and reputational losses. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that it finally accepted around US$200 million, though the actual compensation deal remains confidential.

But the victims of the blockage were far more numerous. More than 18,000 containers with an estimated value of US$600 million to US$700 million have spent the past three months stuck on board. They included cargoes for major international groups such as Ikea and Lenovo and smaller British traders such as EasyEquipment and Snuggy.

There is another community of Ever Given victims that has remained largely invisible and unreported – the crew members who were trapped on board the ship since it ran aground on March 23. Such shipping disputes embroil thousands of seafarers every year. Crew like those on the Ever Given remain trapped on board for the duration of the disputes. Contracts often expire, and wages often do not get paid.

Millions of news reports have been devoted to lockdowns, mortality rates, economic costs and frontline workers during the past 18 months. In that time, the roughly 1.6 million seafarers who staff the world’s merchant vessels and have kept global supply chains running with minimal disruption have been plunged into an unprecedented crisis.

At the heart of their particular pandemic crisis – much of it played out invisibly, far out to sea – has been a crew change crisis
. Border closures, port lockdowns, strictly enforced travel protocols, flight cancellations, quarantines and visa restrictions have created a nightmare challenge for seafarers trying to get to a ship to begin their contract or to get off a ship to travel home when their contract is finished.

In normal times, around 100,000 seafarers rotate on or off their merchant ships in a given month. After five months of mind-numbing, 12-hour shifts seven days a week, they normally fly home for a month back with their families before flying out again to begin another cycle.

But the pandemic has brought unprecedented chaos to this unwatched but indispensable cycle that underpins the movement of 80 to 90 per cent
of the world’s cargo. At its worst point last December, the International Maritime Organisation reported: “As of December 2020, 400,000 seafarers were stranded on ships beyond the end of their contract and unable to be repatriated. Meanwhile, a similar number were stuck at home. That embroiled around half of all seafarers.

It took a special resolution of the UN General Assembly – now called the Neptune Declaration – to get agreement on how to sort out the mess. The declaration allowed seafarers to be designated as “key workers” so they could receive priority for vaccinations and other clearances that will enable them to travel to and from work during the pandemic.

But even now, the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator says 8.8 per cent of seafarers currently at sea are working beyond their contract expiry date and unable to get home. Eight of those with expired contracts were released on the Ever Given, but most have been embroiled by an unprecedented logistical nightmare
which seems unlikely to lift any time soon.

The International Maritime Organisation and several affiliated organisations fear we are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis among seafarers stuck at sea – many well beyond the legal limit of 11 months. They face rising mental health problems
linked with loneliness, worries over how their families are coping at home with Covid-19 and stress over the uncertainty of how they are going to get home.

Seafarers stuck at home might be fortunate by comparison. However, they are suffering financially as they are unable to get to vessels to begin their contracts and are stressed by the logistical challenges of getting vaccinated and obtaining the necessary paperwork to prepare for new jobs.

The problems faced by seafarers are aggravated by the fact that most of them come from developing countries such as India, the Philippines or Indonesia, where vaccines remain in short supply. For example, just 4.8 per cent of Indians are fully vaccinated, 2.7 per cent of Filipinos and 5.2 per cent in Indonesia. Seafarers are struggling to get the “key worker” status that would enable them to jump the vaccine queue.

Many ports worldwide will only accept transiting seafarers if they are vaccinated. Ports in China will not allow them to disembark for crew changes at all. Hong Kong allows them just one disembarkation point – Berth 4 on Stonecutters Island – and insists on direct point-to-point transport from the vessel to Hong Kong International Airport.

This crew change crisis has inflicted cascading harm on the entire global shipping business and the supply chains they support. It is a significant factor in soaring freight rates and rising salary costs for crew. According to Drewry Shipping Consultants, prices of 40-foot shipping containers rose from around US$1,500 in May 2020 to more than US$5,000 in May this year.

As the pandemic drags on and Covid-19 variants multiply, this is yet another reason there is such an urgent need for governments with their heads in the sand to meet globally and agree on rules for safe, trusted travel.

The Ever Given might at last have sailed free, but the world economy continues to be held hostage by Covid-19 and by governments unable or unwilling to negotiate arrangements for restoring safe travel for those “key workers” such as seafarers who are essential for sustaining world trade.