SOS: stranded and broken sailors threaten global supply lines

  • COVID restrictions leave 100,000 commercial sailors stranded at sea
  • 100,000 more are stuck on the ground, unable to earn a living
  • Only 2.5% were vaccinated, according to estimates
  • Turmoil in shipping industry could threaten global supply lines

LONDON / SINGAPORE, July 20 (Reuters) – “I’ve seen grown men cry,” said Captain Tejinder Singh, who hasn’t set foot on land for more than seven months and doesn’t know when to will go home.

“We are being forgotten and taken for granted,” he said of the plight of tens of thousands of sailors like him stranded at sea as the Delta variant of the coronavirus wreaks havoc on land.

“People don’t know how their supermarkets are supplied.”

Singh and most of his 20 crewmembers have crisscrossed the world on a grueling odyssey: from India to the United States to China, where they were stranded off the congested coast for weeks while waiting. to unload their cargo. He was speaking to Reuters from the Pacific Ocean as his ship now heads to Australia.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), they are among some 100,000 seafarers stranded at sea beyond their usual periods of 3 to 9 months, many without even a day off ashore. 100,000 more are stranded ashore, unable to board the ships they need to earn a living.

The devastating Delta variant of parts of Asia – home to many of the world’s 1.7 million commercial sailors – has prompted many countries to cut off access to land to visiting crews, in some cases even for a medical treatment. Only 2.5% of seafarers – one in 40 – have been vaccinated, estimates the ICS.

The United Nations is describing the situation as a humanitarian crisis at sea and says governments should classify seafarers as essential workers. With ships carrying around 90% of global trade, the deepening crisis also poses a major threat to the supply chains we rely on for everything from oil and iron to food and electronic. Read more

The captain of the bulk carrier Singh, from northern India, is not optimistic about a landing anytime soon; its last passage at sea lasted 11 months. He said his crew of Indians and Filipinos lived in cabins measuring around 15 feet by 6 feet.

“Being at sea for a very long time is difficult,” he said, adding that he had heard reports of sailors committing suicide on other ships.

“The hardest question to answer is when the kids ask, ‘Dad, when are you coming home?'” He said from his ship, which recently carried coal.

India and the Philippines, both reeling from the vicious waves of COVID-19, account for more than a third of the world’s commercial seafarers, said Guy Platten, secretary general of ICS, who represents more than 80 % of the world merchant fleet.

“We are seriously concerned that a second global crew change crisis is on the horizon,” he told Reuters, referring to a period of several months in 2020 when 200,000 sailors aboard ships could not be relieved.


In a snapshot this month, nearly 9% of merchant seamen remained stranded aboard their ships beyond the expiration of their contract, up from just over 7% in May, according to the reports. data compiled by the nonprofit Global Maritime Forum group of 10 ship masters together responsible for over 90,000 seafarers.

The maximum authorized duration of the contract is 11 months, as stipulated by a United Nations maritime convention.

Normally around 50,000 sailors turn and 50,000 leave ships per month on average, but the numbers are now only a fraction of that, according to industry players, although there is no precise numbers.

The new crew crisis stems from restrictions imposed by major Asian maritime nations, including South Korea, Taiwan and China, which are home to many of the world’s busiest container ports. The requirements range from mandatory testing for crews coming to or having visited certain countries, to outright bans on crew changes and docking operations. Read more

“Asia is really in trouble and the only countries where you can make routine crew changes to some extent are Japan and Singapore,” said Rajesh Unni, managing director of Synergy Marine Group, a major manager. of ships responsible for 14,000 sailors.

“The problem is, we have a group of people who are desperate to return home because they have completed their tenure, and another group of people ashore who are desperate to come back on board for a living.”


The crisis has led nearly half of commercial seafarers to consider leaving the industry or not knowing whether they will stay or leave, according to a survey by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in March.

This suggests a looming labor shortage that would strain the global fleet of 50,000 merchant ships and threaten the integrity of global supply chains.

A shortage of container ships carrying consumer goods and congestion in ports around the world is already taking its toll on the retail sector, which has seen freight rates soar to record levels, pushing up prices for merchandise.

“Either way, you don’t have enough crew. The shipping industry was working on a very light model,” said Mark O’Neil, CEO of senior ship manager Columbia Shipmanagement and also chairman of the international association of ship and crew managers.

“But now we have all of these issues and we have a large number of sailors removed from this available crew pool,” he said, adding that the result could be vessels unable to navigate.

Stephen Cotton, ITF general secretary, said the sailors were being pushed to their physical and mental limits.

“Some in the industry estimate that up to 25% fewer seafarers are joining ships than before the pandemic,” he added. “We have warned that global brands need to be ready for when some of these tired, tired people finally break.”


As COVID-19 infections in India have receded from their peak, countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia are grappling with an increase in cases and imposing new lockdowns. Read more

“If it gets worse, which could well happen, or if Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ukraine – other crew centers – have the same problem, then the wheels would really come off,” he said. added O’Neil.

The seriousness of the assessment was echoed by Esben Poulsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors of ICS.

“In my 50 years in the maritime industry, the crew change crisis has been unprecedented in the devastating impact it has had on sailors around the world,” he told his board of directors in June.

Most seafarers come from developing countries which have struggled to obtain adequate vaccination supplies, leaving many members of the maritime industry low on the priority list.

Governments with meaningful access to vaccines have a “moral responsibility” to seafarers, ICS Platten said.

“They must follow the example of the United States and the Netherlands and vaccinate non-native crews delivering goods to their ports. They must prioritize the vaccination of seafarers,” he added.

A total of 55 member countries of the United Nations maritime agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have classified seafarers as essential workers, said David Hammond, chief executive of the charity Human Rights at Sea.

This would allow them to travel more freely and return home, and give them better access to vaccines.

“But what about the other 119 Member States and Associate Members? Hammond asked. “Collectively, the global shipping industry is part of a $ 14 trillion marine supply chain that apparently cannot cope with its 1.7 million seafarers. “

Report by Jonathan Saul in LONDON, Roslan Khasawneh in SINGAPORE, Muyu Xu in BEIJING, Mayank Bhardwaj in NEW DELHI and Enrico Dela Cruz in MANILA; Editing by Pravin Char

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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