Shipping industry warns of trade logjam as crews remain stranded

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Peggy Hollinger, Robert Wright and Michael Pooler in London JUNE 7 2020 41 Print this page The international shipping industry has warned of a threat to global trade from a mounting crisis on board merchant vessels, with up to 400,000 crew stranded either at sea or at home by travel restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic. One German-owned tanker last week refused to sail unless replacement crew could be brought in, said industry executives and union representatives, amid concerns over rising fatigue and safety. The fear is that others will follow after June 16, when emergency extensions to the labour agreements governing seafarers’ contracts expire.

Many crew have worked several months beyond their contracts, exceeding regulatory limits, and ship owners, unions and captains have sounded the alarm over safety. “It’s a ticking time-bomb,” said Guy Platten, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping, representing ship owners and operators. “You cannot keep working people indefinitely. Some have been on their ship for more than a year. The longer this issue goes on the greater risk to the supply chain.” Maritime transport is the engine of globalisation. Around 80 per cent of world trade by volume is carried on vessels that range from container ships to fuel tankers and dry bulk carriers, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. You cannot keep working people indefinitely. Some have been on their ship for more than a year Guy Platten, International Chamber of Shipping However, the smooth operation of the freight trade is being hindered by travel restrictions. These bar crew from disembarking to return to their home country, or from travelling to a port where their ship is waiting for a crew change. Many seafarers are also struggling to obtain entry or exit visas, while the suspension of commercial flights increases the difficulties in moving crew around.

Those affected make up more than a fifth of the 1.8m seafarers who crew the world’s 96,000 commercial vessels. Last month, the International Maritime Organisation published a 12-step protocol for safe crew changes. But governments have been slow to implement them and the number of crew stranded at sea was rising on a weekly basis, Mr Platten said.  The industry is now calling on governments to create “safe corridors” that would allow free movement of 1.5m commercial seafarers. These include designating seafarers as “key workers” who can travel without restrictions when leaving or joining a vessel, creating safe areas in airports for their transit, and accepting official maritime documents as proof of identity. Recommended AnalysisThe Big Read Coronavirus: is this the end of the line for cruise ships? Rajesh Unni, chief executive of Synergy

Sue Terpilowski
Author: Sue Terpilowski

Executive Editor of SeaNews