“I’ve seen grown men cry,” said Tejinder Singh, a captain who has not set foot on dry land in more than seven months and is not sure when he will go home.
“We are forgotten and taken for granted,” he said of the plight facing tens of thousands of seafarers like him, stranded at sea as the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 wreaks havoc on shore. “People don’t know how their supermarkets are stocked up.”
Singh and most of his 20-strong crew have crisscrossed the globe on an exhausting odyssey: From India to the US and then on to China, where they were stuck off the congested coast for weeks waiting to unload cargo.
Singh was speaking to Reuters from the Pacific Ocean as his ship now heads to Australia.
They are among about 100,000 seafarers stranded at sea beyond their regular stints of typically three to nine months, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) data showed.
Many of them have been without even a day on land.
Another 100,000 are stuck on shore, unable to board the ships they need to earn a living on.
The Delta variant devastating parts of Asia — home to many of the world’s 1.7 million commercial seafarers — has prompted many nations to cut off land access to visiting crews, in some cases even for medical treatment.
Just 2.5 percent of seafarers — one in every 40 — have been vaccinated against COVID-19, the ICS estimated.
The UN described the situation as a humanitarian crisis at sea and said that governments should class seafarers as essential workers.
As ships transport about 90 percent of the world’s trade, the deepening crisis also poses a major threat to the supply chains economies rely on for everything from oil and iron to food and electronics.
Singh, a bulk carrier master from northern India, is not optimistic of going ashore anytime soon; his last stint at sea lasted 11 months.
Singh said that his crew of Indians and Filipinos were living out of cabins measuring less than 5m by 2m.
“Being at sea for a very long time is tough,” he said, adding that he had heard reports of seafarers killing themselves on other ships.
“The most difficult question to answer is when kids ask: ‘Papa when you are coming home?’” he said from his coal-carrying vessel.
India and the Philippines, both reeling from vicious waves of COVID-19, account for more than one-third of the world’s commercial seafarers, said Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS, which represents more than 80 percent of the world’s merchant fleet.
“We are seriously disturbed that a second global crew change crisis is looming large on the horizon,” he said, referring to a months-long stretch last year when 200,000 seafarers on ships were unable to be relieved.
In a snapshot of the situation, almost 9 percent of merchant sailors were this month stuck aboard their ships beyond their contracts’ expiry, up from just over 7 percent in May, according to data compiled by the Global Maritime Forum based on 10 ship managing companies, which are together responsible for over 90,000 seafarers.
UN rules stipulate that the maximum allowed contract length for a single stint is 11 months.
In normal times, about 50,000 seafarers rotate on and 50,000 rotate off ships per month on average, but the numbers are now a fraction of that, industry players say, although there are no precise figures.
The new crew crisis stems from restrictions imposed by major maritime nations across Asia, including Taiwan, South Korea and China, which are home to many of the world’s busiest container ports.
Requirements range from mandatory testing for crews who come from or have visited certain countries, to outright bans on crew changes and berthing operations.
“Asia really is struggling, and the only countries you can go about routine crew changes to some extent are Japan and Singapore,” said Rajesh Unni, chief executive officer at Synergy Marine Group, a leading ship manager responsible for 14,000 seafarers. “The issue is that we have one set of people who desperately want to go home because they have finished their tenure, and another set of people onshore that are desperate to get back onboard to earn a living.”
The crisis has led to almost half of commercial seafarers either considering leaving the industry, or being unsure whether they would stay or go, a International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) survey showed in March.
This suggests a looming labor crunch that would strain the world’s 50,000-strong merchant shipping fleet and threaten the integrity of global supply chains.
A shortage of container ships carrying consumer products and logjams at ports around the world are already rippling through the retail industry, which has seen freight rates spike to record levels, driving up prices for goods.
“You don’t have enough crew anyway. The shipping industry was working on a very lean model,” said Mark O’Neil, chief executive officer at Columbia Shipmanagement and president of InterManager, the international association for ship and crew managers. “Now we have all of these problems and we have a large number of seafarers taken out of that available crewing pool.”
That could result in vessels being unable to sail, he added.
ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said that seafarers are pushed to their physical and mental limits.
“Some in the industry estimate that as many as 25 percent fewer seafarers are joining vessels than pre-pandemic,” he said. “We have warned that global brands need to be ready for the moment some of these tired and fatigued people finally snap.”
While COVID-19 infections in India have retreated from their peak, countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia are grappling case surges and imposing new lockdowns.
“If it gets worse, which it could well do, or if Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ukraine — other crewing centers — experience the same problem, then the wheels would really come off,” O’Neil said.
The gravity of the assessment was echoed by ICS chairman Esben Poulsson.
“In my 50 years in the maritime industry, the crew change crisis has been unprecedented in the devastating impact it has had on seafarers around the world,” he told the ICS’ board last month.
Most seafarers come from developing nations that have struggled to secure adequate COVID-19 vaccine supplies, leaving many in the maritime industry low on the priority list.
Governments with significant access to vaccines have a “moral responsibility” toward seafarers, Platten said.
“They must follow the lead of the US and the Netherlands, and vaccinate non-native crews delivering goods to their ports. They must prioritize seafarer vaccination,” he added.
A total of 55 member countries of the UN shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, have classed seafarers as essential workers, Human Rights at Sea chief executive officer David Hammond said, adding that this would allow them to travel more freely and return to their homes, and give them better access to vaccines.
“What about the other 119 member states and associate members?” Hammond asked. “Collectively, the global shipping industry is part of a US$14 trillion maritime supply chain that cannot seemingly look after its 1.7 million seafarers.”
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