Seafarers have been unable to disembark from ships due to Covid-19 restrictions © Getty Images
Seafarers have been unable to disembark from ships due to Covid-19 restrictions © Getty Images

Why 300,000 seafarers are marooned at sea

15 September 2020

Failure to recognise seafarers as key workers by global governments is a “ticking time bomb” that could impact the supply of essential foods and medicines, according to industry bodies.

Ian Wright, head of the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF), said supplies had kept flowing into the UK from Europe because government interventions in response to Covid allowed the movement of lorry drivers. 

However, Wright warned that imports from around the world that relied on transportation by sea could be affected if governments failed to take action to “ease the burden on seafarers”, who have been marooned at sea and unable to disembark for crew changes due to Covid restrictions.

Up to 300,000 seafarers are stuck onboard ships and many have downed tools, exercising their right to end their contracts, industry bodies warned.

Meanwhile, 300,000 counterparts are stranded ashore, “unable to start their contracts and [...] without income”, they said. 

Items at risk include tea, coffee, sugar, bananas, spices, certain spirits, and wines, Wright said. 

He said: “It seems illogical that lorry drivers have been acknowledged since the start of the crisis as key workers and entitled to travel across borders. Yet seafarers – playing the same role at sea – are not afforded the same status.

“We should all be clear that seafarers enable the movement of vital products around the globe – not just food and drink but medicines and other household items. In fact, 90% of goods are transported by sea. They are the unsung heroes of global trade.”

Around half of the food consumed in the UK is currently imported, with produce such as meat, fish, grains and dairy products all imported by sea. 

Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said global supply chains, including those for critical products like food and medicines, were at risk of disruption.

He said: “Until now this has been a humanitarian crisis for the seafarers trapped working at sea but not for the consumers or patients ashore who rely on these supply lines. As we approach the six-month mark of this intolerable situation, seafarers will reach for drastic action to end their floating misery and get back to their families. 

“More ships being stopped, more risk of accidents with tired and fatigued crew, more detentions and MLC [maritime labour convention] breaches mean more disruption to critical supply chains.”

Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said: “Seafarers have been the unsung heroes of global trade during the coronavirus. Ships and their crews have kept supplies coming into the UK, ensuring we have enough food, medicines and essential goods.

“But this has come at a cost. Since the start of the pandemic we have seen many countries shut down their borders. The time for talking is over, we need action now from governments to allow crew changes to take place.”

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