Stuck at Sea, the Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

The UN's latest report on Maritime Transport puts a spotlight on the plight of international seafarers - the silent heroes - of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

The draconian measures taken by governments—including nationwide lockdowns—in a bid to stop the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could have been far more catastrophic had it not been for the world's 1.6 million seafarers. The people who, 24/7, oversee the transportation of more than 80% of global flows in goods, according to a report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

"We should be thankful to the maritime sector that people could still buy food and medicine and essential goods in our neighborhood shops," Shamika Sirimanne, chief of UNCTAD's division on technology and logistics told reporters during a virtual news conference to launch the agency's flagship "Review of Maritime Transport 2020" report.

Indeed, with most air cargo capacity—a large part of which is carried in the underbelly of commercial flights—out of operation because of the crisis, maritime transport was the critical link in ensuring global supply chains continued to operate.

The UNCTAD official lauded the critical role played by seafarers, "the unsung heroes" in these hard times, underscoring that "they have been making huge personal sacrifices throughout this pandemic."

In July, the report said about 300,000 seafarers "were trapped working aboard ships due to crew change crisis caused by government and border restrictions; the same number of unemployed seafarers were ashore were waiting to join them."

International Maritime Organization (IMO) officials estimate that around 400,000 seafarers from across the globe are currently stranded on ships, continuing to work but who are unable to be relieved, In some instances, seafarers have now been at sea for 18-20 months, the same sources said. ILO norms stipulate the maximum should be 11 months. In late September, the IMO warned the "deepening crew change crisis... threatens trade and maritime safety." Seafarer unions have voiced concerns some seafarers have had to work up to 17-18 hour shifts putting in jeopardy both their health and their safety.

However, despite calls by shipowners, transport unions, and UN agencies—spearheaded by the International Maritime Organization, the International Labour Organization, UNCTAD, IOM, WHO, and the UN Secretary-General—to designate seafarers as essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis to facilitate their movement and shipping operations, many countries still do not allow foreign crew changes.

Mainland China, one of the world biggest shipping nations, along with Argentina, Peru, and many among other nations, have yet to designate seafarers as essential workers.

Johan Conrad, Manager for Maritime Information at BIMCO, the world's largest direct-membership organization for shipowners, charterers, shipbrokers, and agents, told The G|O on November 11: "According to our latest information is crew change (is) allowed in 65 different countries and selected autonomous regions.”

Asked how many countries do not permit crew change, he noted, "according to our most recently available information this number accounts to 61 with the following split:

  • 43 do not permit
  • 5 countries have restrictions based on the nationalities of crew
  • 13 countries have restrictions based on the travel history of the crew—including recent port calls”

IMO says that about 50 countries have now designated seafarers as key workers, up from around 42 in mid-August. According to IMO data, this includes major commercial shipping nations such as Greece, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom. and Hong Kong, China, and the Philippines—a major seafarer nation.

However, mainland China, one of the world biggest shipping nations, along with Argentina, Peru, and many among other nations, have yet to designate seafarers as essential workers.

A draft resolution has been circulated in the current virtual session of the governing body of the ILO. The text has been agreed by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Chamber of Shipping as well as other key actors. Diplomatic sources told The G|O that the seafarers issue “enjoys quite a lot of consensus.”