Ship Crews Stranded Onboard to Keep Cargo Flowing
The global supply chain now faces another challenge as many countries begin to restart their economies in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Some 200,000 ship crews are stranded because of flight reduction and suspension and closure of ports around the world.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, about 100,000 crew swaps took place on a monthly basis. Experts point to the fact that the number of changes has dwindled to just 20,000 – 30,000 a month. Not only are 200,000 crews stuck onboard and unable to disembark but another 200,000 are staying home and waiting to replace them.
Labor unions and operators warn that seafarers are fatigued as their contracts have been extended to avoid disruptions in the supply of essential goods. Shipping companies supplying medicines, fuel, and food have extended contracts to keep cargo flowing. Exhaustion is a major threat to health and safety, and many crew members want to go home.
Data by the UN World Conference on Trade and Development shows that around 80 percent of cargo is transported by ships. The pandemic crisis has caused major disruptions to the shipping sector due to changes to ships’ routes, delays and denial to enter ports, higher operational expenses, and more.
Now seafarers are in a limbo. Flight suspension and restricted access to ports around the world has made it increasingly difficult to swap crews so that fatigued workers return home.
To avoid supply chain disruptions, unions and shipping operators agreed on a temporary suspension of crew swaps in the short term. The problem is that many workers have been stranded on board for over 12 months, not being able to get off the ship even for a short walk.
Crew members that are stuck onboard also report being denied emergency medical care. For many seafarers, ships have become floating prisons, with mounting issues such as repatriation, limited resupply of fresh water, food, and other essentials, and limited access to ports. Sea freight in Europe has a key role amidst the pandemic but conditions are increasingly difficult for crew members.
Palle Laursen, chief technical officer at Maersk said that exhaustion and mental illness are increasing among crew members as they are working well beyond their contractual agreements. They typically work between 4 and 6 months before going home, with shifts of up to 12 hours seven days a week. Some 35 percent of seafarers working for Maersk are now stuck onboard and working beyond their contractual terms because of immigration restrictions and port and border closures.
Laursen warns that crew swaps cannot be suspended in the long term, mainly for humanitarian reasons, regulatory requirements, and safety concerns. Some seafarers are not only stranded but left with no pay as employers are in a difficult financial situation. They even face shortage of supplies because shipping companies ran out of money to pay for them. While unions come to aid, this is by no doubt a humanitarian crisis that can hurt global trade if not addressed.