Lockdown on the high seas

Lockdown on the high seas
© istock

The iconic image of the current pandemic's frontline has been hospitals overflowing with ICU beds. Health care workers are, rightfully, getting their fair praise as first responders. But away from the spotlight, some 1.2 million seafarers, or ship crew members, quietly toil without any adoration from the mainland, keeping trade flowing at the expense of their health and safety and preventing a humanitarian crisis on a less heralded frontline.

Consider that shipping, which accounts for 90 percent of international trade, is the lifeblood of the global economy — and food supply. Countries have been able to avert a full-blown food crisis thanks to these crews that move food from where it is produced to where it is needed. 

Many of these essential workers have been stranded at sea since March, when countries threw up travel restrictions to contain the virus.

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The inability to conduct crew changes, which ensures safe working hours and crew welfare in accordance with international maritime regulations, is an escalating crisis that could result in food shortages. With a global recession underway, a major disruption to supply chains would not only cripple national economies but also make food less affordable, whether a country is poor or rich.

Governments have ignored recent calls from the shipping industry and the UN to designate seafarers as “essential workers.” This would exempt them from coronavirus travel restrictions. Normally, 100,000 seafarers change over each month. Yet now, due to visa restrictions and stringent health protocols at ports, some 400,000 of them are overdue for a changeover. Half of them have been onboard for 15 months, way past the 11-month maximum legally allowed. They are tired, stressed and depressed, which is dangerous. Seafarers typically work four to six months at a time. At sea, they work a 12-hour shift, seven days a week on tasks that require them to stay alert. What is happening is the equivalent of requiring truck drivers to work double shifts with no sleep or rest stops. 

The other half is the replacement crew that haven’t been able to get onboard due to travel restrictions.

Even as countries cautiously ease their lockdowns, only a dozen nations that have deemed seafarers essential workers, including Canada and Ireland, have allowed crew changes. In the rest, crew change is either prohibited or restricted. Many ports require a mandatory 14-day quarantine. This is impractical and unfeasible, given that roughly two-thirds of the vessels are on voyages under 14 days. Some ports have refused to let crew members disembark even for emergency medical treatment. In the Netherlands, a major shipping hub, a replacement crew of Ukrainian seafarers couldn’t get visas on arrival and weren’t allowed into the country.

This is disrupting global supply chains. Container ships sailing to destinations where crew changes are prohibited are down by 20 percent; in destinations with milder restrictions the decline is 6 percent. More than half of small and medium businesses have reported problems getting ahold of resources, like raw materials, and equipment needed for production. 

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Seaborne trade is even more important now because airfreights are limited. With most passenger flights canceled, this shifts everything to cargo flights. It has sent air freight rates soaring. Importers are also forced to place orders at larger volumes to guarantee cargo space, but at a huge risk of not being able to sell them later. All of these contribute to higher prices for high-value commodities like asparagus, fish and flowers. 

On June 15, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global union of transport workers, directed all crew members awaiting repatriation to stop working, effectively halting shipments. Only then did 13 countries, including the U.S., Singapore, Greece and the United Arab Emirates, reluctantly say they would recognize seafarers as essential workers and allow crew changes.

This action, while positive, is but a drop in the ocean. Most ports in Africa and Latin America remain closed to seafarers. Every nation has to agree to allow more crew changes. They should waive visa restrictions and reopen ports with more practical health protocols, such as testing of all crew members disembarking and embarking vessels.

It’s not surprising that governments facing an unprecedented turmoil like the current pandemic would be slow to respond. Many lack testing capacity and personal protective equipment for their populations, let alone for foreign seafarers coming onshore. Coordinating with the aviation industry to arrange the few remaining flights to repatriate them is another bureaucratic obstacle. While understandable, countries are not being asked to open borders or allow freedom of movement. They merely need to allow a specific group of people whose services have kept food and medicine supply flowing through the crisis transit through their territories.

Governments don’t even have to come up with a plan; the shipping industry has already devised a 12-step protocol ensuring safe crew changes and travel during the pandemic with the UN’s blessings. The International Air Transport Association, the largest trade association of airlines, has been working with the shipping industry to facilitate crew changes. 

Like grocery baggers and delivery men, seafarers are undervalued by society and governments. Their rights are negligible, even though they make it possible for the rest of society to function.  

It is high time to throw these stranded essential workers a life raft.

Maximo Torero is the chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, Italy. Follow him on Twitter @MaximoTorero.