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Let us not forget the vital work of unsung seafarers

Governments must stop imposing arbitrary restrictions on shipping and seafarers around the world. The hardworking staff on ships operate under very difficult conditions already

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread travel restrictions, which are preventing crew changes. Seafarers have valiantly agreed to extend their tours of duty but this cannot last indefinitely

THE Chinese proverb puts it “may you live in interesting times”, well as we live thorough the coronavirus pandemic, we all crave the boredom of a normal world.

In these difficult times when the world it trying to manage the impact of a global pandemic, workers are the backbone of the global economy. Key workers getting up to put the food on the shelves, providing healthcare and delivering the world’s essential goods.

This year, we particularly recognise the contribution being made by healthcare workers and first responders, public transit workers, workers in grocery stores, and delivery drivers. Many of these people are on the front line ensuring that the world does not grind to a halt.

However, there is another group of workers who do not get the recognition they deserve and are all too often taken for granted. These workers are the seafarers who crew the ships that transport 90 percent of world trade.

There are more than 1.2m seafarers at sea at any one time working to ensure that supply chains remain open, and essential goods including food, fuel, raw materials and vital medical supplies, that we all rely on at this time, are transported around the globe. 

For a few minutes, we want you to consider the life and welfare of the workers, the seafarers onboard these vessels, who are far from home but on the front line of this global emergency.

Imagine staying onboard a ship with limited space for six, eight or 10 months, working 10-12 hours per day, seven days a week. Imagine being away from your family and friends for months at a time, sailing across the seas, connecting global supply chains, out of sight to ensure that people receive their daily essential goods.

Now imagine the reality of a seafarer who has been on board a ship for nine months, who has had no contact with coronavirus, who has now come to the end of their duty and cannot get home.

This is what is facing more than 150,000 workers on International Workers’ Day, as restrictions brought in by governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic have severely limited the freedom of movement of seafarers and effectively stopped crew changes from happening.

Right now, seafarers cannot leave their ships, there are no flights available to transport them home or allow their relief to join the ships, and countries are unwilling to assist these key workers back to their homes.

Each month another 150,000 seafarers need to change over with new crew members who are not fatigued and who are ready to do their duty.

We are grateful to them as they go about their vital tasks, but the current situation, where seafarers are unable to be relieved, is not sustainable and governments must act urgently to enable crew changes to happen in a safe and secure manner. Without a functioning maritime sector, supply chains could just stop, and countries would be in a significantly more difficult situation that they find themselves in today.

We have come together today to sound the alarm on this impending crisis. But on International Workers’ Day on the 1st of May, we will not be the only ones sounding the alarm. At 12 noon across the world, ships in ports across the globe today sounded their horns in an act of solidarity with the 1.2m seafarers at sea.

It is now time for governments to listen and act. We have highlighted the issue with the G20, who responded by clearly stating that countries should “spare no effort” to “minimise disruption to trade and global supply chains.” UN bodies such as the International Maritime Organization and the International Labour Organization have called on member states to address the crew change issue. Adina Ioana Valean the European Transport Commissioner has proposed the designation of ports around Europe’s shores to allow the safe change of sea crews, so that our global supply chains continue to run uninterrupted. But still seafarers remain stranded onboard ships.

Our two organisations have been working on protocols, in partnership with the International Air Transport Association and other trade bodies, that governments can adopt. We are doing all we can to ensure that these key workers can travel safely and so that the goods that we all rely upon continue to be delivered safely.

The problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex. We have stepped up and done the homework and developed the protocols. We now need governments to hear the call and work together to address the issue.  

They must stop imposing arbitrary restrictions on shipping and seafarers, which all too often are not in line with the best advice from the World Health Organisation. We need political leaders across the world to hear the sound that will ring out in ports around the world and recognise this for what it is. This is a clarion call, a recognition of solidarity and a moment they must not ignore. For if they miss this call, they will be risking the health of vital workers and the global economy.

We stand ready to support our seafarers, but we also stand ready to support our political leaders so that they can steer a steady course and allow safe crew changes to take place.

Guy Platten is secretary-general at the International Chamber of Shipping; Stephen Cotton is the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation

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