Seafarers at risk in Ukraine conflict

by Emily Atkins

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) is warning of supply chain disruption if the free movement of Ukrainian and Russian seafarers is impeded.

The Seafarer Workforce Report, published in 2021 by BIMCO and ICS, which represents 80 percent of the worlds merchant fleet, reports that 1.89 million seafarers are currently operating over 74,000 vessels in the global merchant fleet.

Of this total workforce, 198,123 (10.5 percent) of seafarers are Russian, of whom 71,652 are officers and 126,471 are ratings. Ukraine accounts for 76,442 (four percent) of seafarers of which 47,058 are officers and 29,383 are ratings. Combined they represent 14.5 percent of the global workforce.

Shipping is currently responsible for the movement of near 90 percent of global trade. Seafarers have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, ensuring essential supplies of food, fuel and medicine continue to reach their destinations.

To maintain this unfettered trade, seafarers must be able to join and disembark ships (crew change) freely across the world. With flights cancelled in the region, this will become increasingly difficult. The ability to pay seafarers also needs to be maintained via international banking systems.

Ocean carrier Maersk said in a customer bulletin on February 27 that crew changes for its seafarers on the way to home to Ukraine were stopped due to security concerns. Those employees have been accommodated in Poland for the next few days as the company tracks the situation, it said.

“The safety of our seafarers is our absolute priority. We call on all parties to ensure that seafarers do not become the collateral damage in any actions that governments or others may take,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping.

“Seafarers have been at the forefront of keeping trade flowing though the pandemic and we hope that all parties will continue to facilitate free passage of goods and these key workers at this time.”

ICS has previously warned of a shortage of merchant sailors to crew commercial ships if action is not taken to boost numbers, raising risks for global supply chains. This has been compounded by draconian travel restrictions, brought on by the pandemic, that saw seafarers unable to crew change and resulted in more than 100,000 overstaying contracted periods at sea.

Research carried out by ICS reported that the average ship has a mix of at least three nationalities on board, and sometimes as many as 30. Three languages were the minimum spoken on the average ship.