Trapped seafarers pose risk to global supply chains

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
29 January 2021

The crisis of seafarers trapped on ships due to coronavirus restrictions across the globe could lead to a situation where there are not enough people to man ships, the UK Chamber of Shipping has warned.

Graham Westgarth, vice president of the UK Chamber of Shipping, told SM seafarers who had been trapped and returned to their families were reluctant to go back to work.

“A lot of those seafarers who were trapped have now gone home and what we’re seeing is a reluctance to come back and rejoin their ships without having a clear understanding around whether a similar situation will arise,” he said.

“If you take that to its natural conclusion you could ultimately not have enough seafarers to man the ships. I think we’re a long way away from that so I’m not suggesting it’s an immediate threat but we do take for granted that everything we buy is brought to us on ships.”

Westgarth was speaking as hundreds of firms including Maersk and Unilever announced support for the Neptune Declaration, which calls on governments to treat seafarers as key workers.

Westgarth said there were around 1.5m seafarers in the profession and 1m at sea at any one point in time. At the height of the problem 35% were trapped on vessels but currently that figure is 10-15%, representing around 100,000 people.

“There needs to be recognition that seafarers are the lifeblood of trade,” he said. “Them not being accepted as key workers in various countries, that’s leading to a situation where they’re spending prolonged periods of time away from their families and that’s a humanitarian situation we should try and resolve.”

Westgarth said the crisis of ports jammed with containers, caused by the pandemic and the lead up to Brexit, had eased but it could reoccur.

Speaking about Felixstowe he said: “Ships were coming in landing containers but those containers weren’t being moved so they were stuck in the port because manufacturing plants were being shut down so they didn’t require the goods.

“Eventually the economy picked up and those containers were moved, but in the meantime there were ships full of containers waiting outside to get in and when the empties came back [to Felixstowe as firms unloaded them] they didn’t have the space to stack them. Those containers were required in the Far East but they were still sitting in Felixstowe.

“It’s improved as economic activity has picked up but it could reoccur as we go into further lockdowns.”

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