Inside Logistics

The Bigger Picture: The worst job in the world

Seafarers stranded at sea are important frontline workers


October 12, 2020
by Laurie Turnbull

Laurie Turnbull is Professor, Supply Chain Management-Global, at Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. lturnbull@conestogac.on.ca

Covid-19 has illustrated the shocking degree to which many organizations were unprepared to deal with the commercial and social impact of a pandemic. This is particularly egregious since the concept of ‘risk management’ has been studied since the 1950s, and Covid-19 must certainly qualify as one of the greatest risks humanity has faced since then.

One would think that governments and businesses would be better prepared after seventy years of risk management practices. It’s particularly ironic that the study of ‘risk’ has it origins in the insurance industry, an industry that profits from identifying and avoiding liabilities associated with risks, and that commercial industries would not have taken more prudent steps to protect themselves from uninsurable risk.

This issue surfaced quickly after the onset of Covid-19, when importers in China declared ‘force majeure’ after vessel cargos could not be offloaded in Chinese ports due to lack of manpower. Contract language around ‘force majeure’ typically describes a situation where one of the parties is absolved of its contractual responsibilities due to events beyond its control.

Anyone who has been involved in marine insurance claims knows that the eventual outcome for many claims may be delayed for months, or even years, in litigation involving the attachment of liability flowing from abstract terms like “act of God”, “frustration” or whether or not Covid-19 will be interpreted as a “triggering” event. In other words, don’t expect your cheque anytime soon.

The lonely seafarer

Lost in these multi million-dollar machinations is the plight of the lonely seafarer. These are the men and women who work on the approximately 50,000 merchant ships that sail the world’s oceans, delivering 90 percent of world trade according to the International Chamber of Shipping. The IMO (International Maritime Organization) estimates this workforce at over a million people, many working 12-hour shifts, six and seven days a week for up to six months or longer.

A recent CNBC report describes a pre-pandemic maritime industry of 100,000 crew changes each month, enabling fresh crews of seafarers to relieve those who completed their voyage contracts. Due to Covid-19, however, which prevented seafarers from embarking or disembarking from vessels in port, that number dropped to between 20,000 and 30,000 crew changes each month.

By mid-summer 2020, the International Transport Workers’ Federation estimated approximately 300,000 seafarers were stranded aboard ships worldwide, while another 300,000 were stuck at home, unable to relieve those on board. Conditions on board for those stranded at sea worsened to the point where rumblings of “strikes” were eventually heard as seafarers were unable to disembark from their water-bound prisons.

With no one to take up their cause, seafarers quickly became people with no home, or at least not one they could get to. Hard to believe that no one envisioned a scenario where as many as 300,000 people could be stranded at sea, and yet that’s exactly what happened. On May 27, the IMO, along with several other United Nations agencies, issued a statement asking governments and regulatory authorities to permit seafarers to disembark and embark ships in port for the purposes of crew changes.

Humanitarian crisis

This was followed on June 12 by a statement from the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, expressing concerns about the growing humanitarian crisis facing seafarers who had been stranded at sea for months, and asking all countries to formally designate seafarers as frontline workers in order to facilitate crew changeovers.

In July, the U.A.E. and Denmark were among the first countries to announce they would allow crew changes following the International Maritime Summit on Crew Changes, where 13 governments including the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, and the U.S., acknowledged that the issue of ship’s crew changes was the most significant operational challenge to global trade and recommended that seafarers’ tours of duty not exceed 12 months.

While seafarers are invisible to most consumers, their plight during the pandemic illustrates the need to re-evaluate their role in facilitating global trade. While many of those stranded at sea in 2020 can be forgiven for thinking they had the worst job in the world, it does not undermine their necessity. Surely frontline workers who put themselves at risk to deliver 90 percent of world trade, including food, consumer goods and medical supplies, can now be seen as performing some of the world’s most important jobs.