Shipping-industry leaders are scrambling to solve the crisis of thousands of maritime workers who have been stranded because of the coronavirus pandemic. Global attention on the Suez Canal blockage last month gave them a new chance.
Unions, seafarer ministries and multinational ship owners and charterers — odd bedfellows in normal times — all seized the moment to raise awareness of the plight shipping workers face due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
"We spend most of our time arguing with ship owners but the reality is on this one is we've really pulled together because it is a humanitarian crisis," said Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). "The irony of the Suez situation is one small incident generates enormous coverage."
As countries closed borders last March, many decided not to allow seafarers to get off ships at port. And the maritime workers who managed to get on land often weren't able to book plane tickets home because of other restrictions.
At the peak, about 400,000 maritime workers were unable to get off ships and get home, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. That number of workers struggling to repatriate now stands about 200,000.
Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill Inc.'s ocean transportation unit, took the opportunity in a recent Star Tribune interview to vent his frustration about the lack of interest in seafarers' well-being during the pandemic.
"Because they were not deemed essential workers, they've had to abide by every single country's laws like everybody else," Dieleman said. "Nobody has been able to solve this. Everyone is looking for someone to blame, but as an industry, as a society, we need to do better."
A complex patchwork of government rules limiting the cross-border movement of people continues to be a challenge, Cotton said. The growing prevalence of coronavirus variants is now leading to new lockdowns that could strand more workers at sea.
Compounding the issue, demand for shipping grew during the pandemic, said Jason Zuidema, executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association.
First came the surge in demand for personal protective equipment. Then came North American consumers and their online shopping that stressed the industry as their home, garden and office supplies filled containers floating aboard vessels from Asia to Los Angeles.
"[The companies] were still desperate to keep up the flow of essential goods and [personal protective equipment]," Zuidema said in an e-mail. "Keeping our store shelves stocked came at the expense of not allowing seafarers to go home for many additional months beyond the end of their contracts."
Three-month contracts turned to six months, six-month contracts turned into eight months. And even though 11 months is the longest amount of time a seafarer is supposed to be working aboard a ship, according to standards set by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations, there were cases of crew members unable to disembark for 17 months during the pandemic.
Cargill, which has between 1,400 and 1,500 seafarers working its chartered vessels, tried to redirect its ships to ports where crew changes were allowed, Dieleman said.
The shipping industry is filled with shadowy middlemen who aren't always held accountable, Cotton said. Many charterers refused to detour to crew-friendly ports, prioritizing on-time delivery of their cargo instead, he said.
And while some were stuck at sea, the restrictions put on crew changes meant other workers were unable to earn an income by not being able to board.
By mid-July 2020, 13 nations, including the United States, signed a joint statement acknowledging seafarers as key workers in the pandemic efforts and pledging to improve conditions for the workers.
The U.N. General Assembly in December adopted a resolution that all nations should extend that status to seafarers. The International Maritime Organization, the U.N.'s maritime agency, reported last month that less than 60 had done so.
"There is still a long way to go before we are back to a normal crew change regime," Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the IMO, said in a statement last month. "As vaccination is rolled out in many countries, I urge governments to prioritize seafarers in their national COVID-19 vaccination programs."
The shipping industry continues to press national governments on seafarer stranding and vaccination. More than 750 organizations signed the Neptune Declaration for Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change early this year.
"Seafarers should be recognized as essential workers by governments around the world," Zuidema said. "They need to get priority access to vaccines."
About a quarter of global seafarers who have so far responded to an ITF survey said they are considering leaving the industry after the negative experience of this past year.
"Some seafarers are reconsidering going back to sea," Cotton said. "How do you explain to your partner, children, parents that you don't know when you'll be home?"
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767