In spite of the Covid-19 pandemic global trade by sea has continued beyond the public gaze of most countries. Whilst seafarers have continued to work, governments have taken different measures to protect their citizens and their economies. Some industries have virtually ground to a halt, including airlines. Infections rates have peaked, troughed, stabilised, and jumped up again, but the virus has remained unchecked.
At the beginning of the pandemic seafarers were relatively safe at sea but worried for their families. With countries in lockdown it became apparent that seafarers would have difficulty getting home. The maritime unions and the shipping industry worked together with the International Maritime Organisation to develop protocols to facilitate repatriation and crew changes. The IMO framework of protocols were issued on 05 May 2020, shortly after the ITF launched its ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign, but despite this, the response from governments has been indifferent and hundreds of thousands of seafarers are still at sea. Instead of recognising seafarers as key workers and getting them home, their contracts have been extended well beyond terms that can be considered humane.
In some senses the shipping industry is simple. There are customers with goods that need to be shipped from one port to another and shipowners with ships that will provide this service for a fee. However in reality shipping is perhaps the foremost example of the complexity of economic globalisation. Ships are crewed by seafarers from one side of the world and owned by banks and businesses on the opposite side. They are likely registered in a third country such as Panama or Liberia, financed in China, insured from London, managed out of Hong Kong or Singapore, and trading all over the world. Although there is international regulation, the diffusion of responsibility makes seafarers uniquely vulnerable when it comes to asserting and defending their rights.
At no point has this been more evident than during the unfolding crew change crisis that has seen seafarers stranded at sea for many months beyond the terms of their contracts. Whilst their resilience has been tested to the limits, their ability to take a firm stand has been brutally undermined by the fear of future unemployment.
Seafarers are the hidden key workers – transporting the raw materials and consumer goods that keep hospitals running, power stations pumping and shipping essential consumer goods.