Kuala Lumpur – Before the pandemic, 100,000 seafarers traveled in and out of the world’s ports every month. Some had spent weeks or months aboard the cargo ships, tankers and other merchant vessels that are essential to moving products and commodities across the globe. In a ritual little noticed outside the industry, new crews would regularly arrive to relieve them, ensuring that the world’s vast merchant fleet wasn’t endangered by fatigued sailors. Now, thanks to the coronavirus, this critical process is breaking down, threatening the safety of the world’s waterways and the functioning of a business that carries 80 percent of global trade.
Worldwide, more than 1.6 million seafarers are serving on merchant vessels. Filipinos make up about 25 percent of them, while most of the rest come from other developing nations. Pay is good, especially when compared to wages back home, but the work is invariably hard and dangerous. Storms, piracy and accidents are among the most obvious hazards. More treacherous still is the fatigue that can build up due to lack of sleep and long voyages.
Even before the coronavirus, seafarer fatigue was causing alarm in the industry. Globalization has encouraged shipping companies to set highly competitive schedules with fewer and fewer crew members. Although some rules and regulations have been established to limit work hours, a recent study showed that sleeplessness is a problem at all stages of a ship’s journey, and that fatigue and stress increase as a voyage nears its end, irrespective of length. Among other problems, this can lead to significant health issues for seafarers, including depression.
Inevitably, all that stress will harm workers’ performance and thus the safety of their ships. In recent decades, research has repeatedly pointed to human error — usually precipitated by fatigue — as the primary cause of maritime accidents. In one study, such errors amounted to 75 percent of the value of marine-related insurance claims between 2011 and 2016.
Crew switches are a crucial means of mitigating those problems, and seafarers’ contracts generally include transport to and from their ships as part of their compensation. But virus-related travel bans, combined with the cessation of many international flights, have made that process difficult, stranding tens of thousands of sailors on board ships.
Precise numbers aren’t available, but there are some hints. India reports 40,000 stranded sailors; China expects more than 20,000 by the end of May. A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, the world’s biggest shipping line, has suspended all crew switches until May 12 to reduce the risk that seafarers might be stranded or exposed to the virus.
Though there’s only been one confirmed outbreak of COVID-19 on a merchant ship, seafarers are certainly aware of the stigma attached to crews and passengers of cruise ships, and the difficulties they’ve been having getting repatriated. Likewise, the stress of being at sea for an indefinite period (and away from family and friends) weighs heavily in the best of times; during the pandemic, it’s surely even heavier. A free helpline for seafarers called iCALL saw a 40 percent spike in messages and calls in February.
How that human struggle will play out for the industry is unclear. No responsible shipping company should want to operate its vessels with a stranded, stressed and sleepless crew. But unless something changes drastically, a hard choice is coming soon: Either the shipping industry will have to accept more risks, or the world will have to accept less shipping.
So long as most international air routes are suspended, it won’t be easy to switch out and repatriate seafarers. Nonetheless, governments could ease the pressure and ensure the continued flow of goods by recognizing that seafarers are “essential” or “key” personnel, akin to medical professionals or truckers, and allow them to transit through their territories to reach airports, ferry launches and other transport nodes. Meanwhile, countries with large numbers of seafarers should coordinate with shipping companies to arrange for designated ports where crew changes can be overseen, quarantines can be established and charters arranged.
It’s true that this will increase costs. But shippers — and governments — should be willing to pay up. Without seafarers and their cargoes, the world economy is sunk.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg columnist.
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