A few short weeks ago, the entire world was transfixed by images of one of the largest containerships on the globe blocking the Suez Canal for six days, causing an estimated billions of dollars of expenses to the global economy.
Footage of tugs, dredges and excavators working tirelessly on the scene to free the Ever Given from the canal’s eastern wall was streamed across major news networks.
The coverage of the Ever Given incident was another example of the way in which shipping only finds itself in the spotlight when things go wrong.
What has received little world media attention, however, is the ongoing crew change crisis.
At the time of this writing, at least 200,000 seafarers were still stuck onboard ships across the globe unable to leave due to tight COVID-19 restrictions that prevent crew changes.
Though the number of seafarers impacted has shrunk from its one time high, new variants of COVID-19 have brought new border control and travel restrictions that threaten to sharply increase the number of seafarers affected by the crew change crisis.
In March, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said that thus far, only 55 countries and two associate members of the IMO have declared seafarers to be key workers and more work must be done to ensure crew do not once again become collateral damage in the pandemic.
In a December 2020, ruling the International Labor Organization found that governments have failed to protect seafarers’ rights as set out in international law under the Maritime Labor Convention, 2006. The UN agency called on states to recognize seafarers as key workers “without delay.”
Concerns about prioritization for vaccination for seafarers must also be addressed.
Vaccine passports being considered by some governments threaten to pose a potential barrier to crew change as seafarers from developing nations are unlikely to have an opportunity to receive vaccines until July at the earliest.
“The crew change crisis is not resolved but has reached a situation where it has been more manageable,” says ICS Secretary General Guy Platten. “However, there is great concern over the increased travel restrictions being imposed by governments in response to new variants. Seafarers must be designated as keyworkers. The crisis is still ongoing, and we will not let up our efforts.”
One thing is certain, though. Shipping will be relied on to play a major part in plans for the worldwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. And, as Platten says, “Governments will not be able to vaccinate their citizens without the shipping industry or, most importantly, our seafarers.”