Global shipping at ‘critical point’ as routes threatened by sailor shortage

Covid-19 has disrupted staffing on world’s shipping lanes with potentially disastrous consequences for international trade

A man wearing a facemask fishes with the The Queen Mary ocean liner in the background in Long Beach, California, on July 14, 2020. California's Governor Gavin Newsom announced a significant rollback of the state's reopening plan on July 13, 2020 as coronavirus cases soared across America's richest and most populous state. / AFP / Apu GOMES
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The international shipping community is facing a major labour crisis, with sailors stranded on ships or at home because of visa and flight restrictions, maritime groups said.

With crew changes down by 75 per cent, a humanitarian crisis is also developing, with sailors suffering mental health problems, fatigue and accidents from being trapped for months at a time on ships.

With more than 200,000 sailors unable to leave their vessels and a similar number trying to get out to them, international shipping bodies believe the world economy is weeks from another disaster.

Last week, only 13 countries including the UAE, Britain and the United States, signed up to an agreement to designate sailors as key workers, allowing them to fly home without quarantine or visa issues.

But other major seafaring nations such as China and India refused to sign up, adding to the dangerous logjam that could affect the global economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

With ships transporting 80 per cent of global trade, the urgency to resolve the problem has been highlighted by the International Maritime Organisation, a UN body.

In a statement it said: “Three key requirements are needed to stop the crisis spiralling. Seafarers need to be designated as key workers globally, visa requirements need to be dropped, and governments need to get commercial airlines running to transport them.”

Some ship owners have resorted to chartering aircraft to turn around crews, at an estimated $800,000 (Dh2.9m) cost per change.

Seafarers onboard the Mt Iba anchored off the Dubai coast hope lifting of Covid-19 maritime restrictions will allow them to return home after three years at sea. From left, cook Monchand Shaikh, second engineer Vinay Kumar and ordinary seaman Nirmal Singh, all from India. Courtesy: Nay Win 

Another owner sailed his empty tanker from Africa to Britain to facilitate a crew change before taking the ship back to Africa.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said the global economy was in danger if no action was taken.

“We are weeks away from this becoming a very serious situation. We cannot go on like this indefinitely as every day that passes, the risk rises.”

Crew fatigue was also making ships unsafe. "This will really put supply chains under threat, that's how serious it is," Mr Platten told The National.

Seafarers are the ones keeping our supermarket food shelves stocked

“If ships can’t sail, they can’t deliver the goods, not merely food or medical supplies at a moment when some economies are recovering and when they really need to keep supply chains running.”

He called on governments to show the political will to prioritise seafarers as essential workers and allow them to travel freely.

In a column for The National, Mr Platten called on other governments to following the example set by the UAE, Britain and America.

“By leading from the front and doing everything in its power to expedite crew change, the UAE can set an example for the world to follow. We cannot overstate the urgency.”

The Echizen Maru fishing trawler (top, R) remains docked at Ushuaia's harbour in Tierra del Fuego Province, Argentina, on July 14, 2020 after 57 sailors were infected with the novel coronavirus COVID-19 after 35 days at sea, despite the entire crew testing negative before leaving port. The Echizen Maru fishing trawler returned to port after some of its crew began exhibiting symptoms typical of COVID-19, the health ministry for the southern Tierra del Fuego province said Monday. According to the ministry, 57 sailors, out of 61 crew members, were diagnosed with the virus after undergoing a new test.
 / AFP / Alexis DELELISI

Usually 100,000 workers are repatriated every month but since the pandemic struck in March, only 25 per cent of the normal number of crew changes have taken place.

Former UK transport minister Nusrat Ghani told The National that world shipping was at a "critical point" because without seafarers working "we are in an absolute bind".

“Seafarers are the ones keeping our supermarket food shelves stocked, they are the ones that ensure medicines are imported, keep industries afloat, without them the rest of the country cannot function.

We are 14 months on board ... send us home

“Seafarers are out at sea and out of mind but everything in our homes is there because they are at work, shipping goods to us.”

With a further worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus looming, swift action was now required, the IMO said. “The uncertainty around a possible second wave of Covid-19 underscores the need for swift action to allow crew changes and avoid further consequences to the fragile global supply chain.”

There are growing concerns over mental health after sailors missed their own weddings, births of their children and funerals of relatives after they were stuck in port for months. A number have taken their own lives. The onboard issues “could lead to serious maritime accidents”, the IMO warned.

“We are 14 months on board ... send us home for vacation to refresh our fatigue and pressure,” wrote stranded sailor Enrique Sumayo on the IMO Facebook page.

In a plea to other countries to ease restrictions, Nawsad Amin, an engineer, said: “Need to take more steps quickly. Many vessels’ environment is going down day by day, which can result in increasing accidents and fighting.”

Other sailors begged for countries to open up international flights to get people home. In many countries, seafarers provide income for extended families but those 200,000 trapped at home are now without a wage.

A spokesman for Seafarers UK said: “Our big problem is that people have been asked to work beyond their contract’s expiry date and, when they are fatigued, the likelihood of serious accidents increases and inevitably there have been examples of seafarers taking their own lives.

“It will, of course, have an impact on the world food trade because if crews aren’t available, ship movements are interrupted. That impact will be felt most seriously by countries dependent on shipping.”