Stuck at sea: How to save the world’s seafarers and the supply systems they support

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Global action is being urged to stop a humanitarian crisis unfolding at sea.
  • Crew changes on merchant ships have been stopped for months, putting those onboard at risk of depression and injury.
  • Industry leaders are calling for stranded seafarers to be recognized as key workers, have visas waived and given access to flights to return home.
  • Supply systems and the global economic recovery are also at stake, as shipping is the lifeblood of the global economy, transporting 90% of global trade.

Clapping for essential workers on suburban streets cannot be heard at sea, where hundreds of thousands of crew members are stranded on ships they can’t leave, risking their lives to put food on our plates.

Our complex global supply system would grind to a halt without them, as merchant ships transport about 90% of global trade by volume, from food and medical goods, to energy and raw materials. In 2018, world seaborne trade volumes rose to an all-time high of 11 billion tonnes.

But as the pandemic continues, the mental health and safety of crews are under threat, imperilling the global economic recovery from COVID-19, according to a growing swell of leaders and organizations, including the World Economic Forum.

Meetings of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), heads of business, government ministers and workers’ representatives will begin on June 22 to chart a way through the crisis. At the heart of the gathering will be a call for urgent action to rescue these forgotten essential workers, who have been working much longer than their contracts usually allow.

‘Serving those who serve us’

Since the coronavirus crisis began, as many as 1 in 6 of the 1 million crew on 60,000 cargo ships at sea have been marooned. Crew changes were suspended in March as a short-term solution to avoid disruption to the supply system.

The men and women still working on board are unable to disembark, with border closures, grounded aircraft and travel restrictions all preventing them from returning to their home country and families.

And they don’t know when they will.

“The transport industry’s imperative is keeping people safe, while keeping food and other goods moving in service to society,” says Margi Van Gogh, the Forum’s Head of Supply Chain and Transport Industries, also coordinating the Industry Action Group with a cohort of CEOs.

“Cohesive action at a global level is needed to keep fatigued seafarers safe – protecting the lives and livelihoods of these men and women who keep the fragile, interconnected global supply system functioning is the best way we can now serve those who serve us,” said Van Gogh.

The plight of seafarers has become a “humanitarian and safety crisis”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, calling on countries to repatriate their citizens.

Facilitating seafarer repatriations and crew changes needs immediate attention, echoes Bud Dar, Executive Vice President, Maritime Policy and Government Affairs of global cruise and container shipping firm MSC Group.

“All involved governments must give full effect to the recent call of the UN Secretary-General, to alleviate the hardship on these heroes of the transportation world and their families, and to avoid the possibility of disruptions in trade.”

‘Cabin fever’

Palle Laursen, the chief technical officer of Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, told CNN more than a third of the 6,600 seafarers currently at sea have been serving “well above their normal contract length”.

“Fatigue and issues with mental health are increasing. For safety, regulatory and humanitarian reasons, crew changes cannot be postponed indefinitely.”

Some seafarers have been onboard for more than a year, according to Dave Heindel, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers’ Section Chair. Many have been prevented by governments from coming ashore even for a walk and in some cases, he says, refused emergency medical care.

In April, it took a joined-up response from the ITF, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization’s Seafarer Crisis Action Team (tasked with monitoring, coordination and support) to save the life of a 45-year-old Russian seafarer who was having a stroke, after repeated requests from the cargo ship to enter port were refused.

One container ship officer anonymously told the BBC: “Morale is quite low, especially because you can’t go out ashore and, without that, by definition it’s cabin fever.”

“You have had to make, and are continuing to make, many sacrifices,” said Pope Francis in a recent video message of solidarity. “Long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection – all these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever.”

Sue Terpilowski
Author: Sue Terpilowski

Executive Editor of SeaNews