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The Seafarer Crisis: More than 300,000 workers stranded at sea

The pandemic has triggered many crises, especially in tourism, travel, retail and the restaurant businesses, which have all taken huge hits.
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A silent crisis has hit the seafarers too. Thousand of ships and sailors have been struck adrift in the seven months of the pandemic. Nearly 20% of the world's 1.6 million seafarers are stranded at sea in breach of international maritime law and regulations, union officials said. The pandemic rules have made their disembarking and crew changes difficult.

“This floating population, many of which have been at sea for over a year, are reaching the end of their tether,” Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents shipowners, said on Friday. “If governments do not act quickly and decisively to facilitate the transfer of crews and ease restrictions around air travel, we face the very real situation of a slowdown in global trade.”

Eighty countries have ratified the Maritime Labour Convention, and it is mandatory for the signatories to follow the minimum working conditions for seafarers that govern the issuance of insurance and global contracts for the transportation of goods by sea.

A news report that followed up on the conditions of these sea workers, found that half didn't have current contracts and some had not been paid their wages for more than two months, which puts them in the category of forced labor under the International Labour Organization law. Besides, there was no proper registering of overtime at all.

The past-due contracts and unpaid overtime are especially troubling, said Brandt Wagner, head of the transport and maritime sectoral policies unit at the ILO, which administers the Law of the Sea. "These are violations of the Maritime Labour Convention," he said. "We should make sure that the Covid-19 pandemic isn't used as an excuse to breach the law … Seafarers' rights have to be upheld, even if it's cumbersome or difficult."

Access to medical care is nil, to the extent a ship captain who died of a heart attack did not find any port ready to accept the body for a decent burial for three weeks.

In all, some 300,000 seafarers are overdue for relief. "The shipping industry has never been seen as risky," said Antony Crockett, who leads the Asia-Pacific business and human rights practice for international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. "Now those companies are going to get questions from their customers: 'Tell us about the conditions on ships. Tell us what you're doing to mitigate these impacts on the workforce?'"

This is not only a crisis of human rights but of economics too. Many investment fund companies have stakes in these shipping companies.

Global asset manager Fidelity International Ltd., American insurance giant Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., asset manager Oaktree Capital Group LLC and finance titan JPMorgan Chase & Co all have some investments in these vessel companies.

"This is the most dire situation with vessels and crew that I've seen in many decades," said Andrew Kinsey, a New York-based senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. At best, he says, expect more detentions and delays. At worst, there will be disastrous mistakes—Allianz estimates that human error contributes to at least three-quarters of shipping industry accidents—and fatalities.

Many retailers will be stuck for supplies and goods if this issue is not resolved soon.

Analysts say, it threatens to ripple up the supply chain, affecting commodities companies like Cargill Inc. and Glencore Plc. and retailers like Dick's Sporting Goods Inc., just in time for the holiday shopping season.

"The people who own the assets and make money off the assets need to come together to come up with a solution," Andrew Kinsey, a New York-based senior marine risk consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, said. "They have to use their assets to get the crew off. Each party needs to assume responsibility instead of passing it to the next party."

Shipping companies, as in most businesses, recruit from poorer countries due to low wages and a more compliant crew. And the involved agencies are all bothered about on-time shipments over the welfare of nearly invisible workers.

"Many companies in the world are making crew changes. But our CMA CGM, such a big company, can't do a relief flight," said one seafarer. "We are forgotten lives in the sea."

The shipping industry is governed by so many diverse maritime rules and compliance laws that they are able to circumvent most with no single agency able to implement any accountability to them.

Every ship is connected with a handful of separate entities viz—the ship's owner, its operator, a staffing agency which recruits seafarers, and the charterer that hires the boat to get its goods from point A to point B.

But in most ports, employers—usually the operator or the owner—are legally responsible for seafarers' safety, health and welfare. "But everyone along the supply chain has a responsibility," said the ITF's National Coordinator in Australia, Dean Summers. "Traditionally industry stands in a circle and points to the bloke to the left and no one takes the blame. financial titans have some distance from their underlying assets.

If ship owners think Burmese workers are a risk, "they will stop offering jobs for Myanmar," he said. "This hurts our maritime industry and the economy as a whole. There aren't enough jobs for everyone here."

Trade unions and officials of the shipping companies have been lobbying governments and port authorities to award seafarers "key worker" status, with the same travel and immigration privileges conferred on aircraft staff and medical workers in these difficult times. In July, the U.S., Singapore, Greece and the United Arab Emirates pledged to ease port and border restrictions and to help stranded crews return home.

The labor crisis is a COVID-era anomaly. "It is being addressed and the crews are being repatriated," said Andy Dacy, head of the $2 billion global transport portfolio for JPMorgan Chase, adding that companies that act irresponsibly in this crisis will suffer in the long term. "I haven't seen any situations where you can't get a crew home. It just requires more time, more money and more effort."

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