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Why Are Hundreds of Thousands Of Cargo Ship Workers Stranded At Sea?

For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian government has designated eight categories of essential workers, which includes:

  • Healthcare workers
  • Emergency service workers
  • Food service workers
  • Utility workers
  • Transportation and logistics workers
  • Public workers
  • Education and childcare workers
  • Media workers

Around the world, government lists of key workers look much the same. The service these employees provide is considered so important to the day-to-day running of society that they are encouraged (and often mandated) to continue their jobs as normal.

But there is one critical profession whose sacrifice, service, and professionalism have been woefully overlooked in recent months. The plight of hundreds of thousands of seafarers is fast becoming a grave humanitarian (and economic) crisis.

At least two million people serve as seafarers around the world, where they play a critical role in the movement of more than 80% of global trade including everything from food and medical supplies to raw materials and product components.

On 24th September, which marks World Maritime Day, UN chief António Guterres praised the work of seafarers throughout the pandemic. “Despite the unprecedented conditions brought about by the pandemic, seafarers have continued to tirelessly support the often invisible global logistics chain,” he said.

It is estimated that at least 300,000 seafarers are still trapped at sea as a result of border closures and travel restrictions. Now the UN is urging governments around the world to assign seafarers “key worker” status. This would enable safe crew changes and stranded workers to return home to be replaced by their colleagues.

How did this humanitarian crisis arise?

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began to spread around the world, life for actively serving seafarers quickly became very challenging. Crew changes, shore leave, and medical leave were immediately suspended and ships struggled to get hold of vital supplies for their crews. With travel restrictions, border closures, and port regulations changing at an alarming rate, it became almost impossible to repatriate the seafarers stuck out at sea.

On 12th June, The UN’s Secretary-General issued a statement urging countries to formally designate seafarers and other marine personnel as “key workers” and ensure crew changeovers could be safely facilitated.

The statement also confirmed that the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are working alongside the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation to develop appropriate protocols for crew changeovers.

How have governments around the world responded to the UN’s appeal?

During the online International Maritime Summit in early July, more than a dozen countries (including the UK, Denmark, the U.S., and the UAE) made a joint commitment to open up borders to seafarers and increase the regularity of commercial flights to accelerate the repatriation process.

In August, crews on two ships in Newcastle, NSW downed tools and refused to keep sailing, demanding repatriation following months at sea.

As of the end of September, there were still hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded at sea. These workers are mentally and physically exhausted, with many approaching 18 months aboard a cargo vessel without a break, a chance to see their loved ones, or access to proper medical care. Shocking accounts detail a captain who pulled out teeth for two of their crew members and seafarers shaving their heads after running out of shampoo.

As the World Economic Forum so rightly highlights, without these workers “global trade and global supply chains grind to a halt”. They deserve much better.  Prompt global cooperation is essential to ensure seafarers can return home as quickly as possible.

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