Spare a thought for the seafarers — the unsung heroes of global supply chain

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on June 24, 2020 Published on June 24, 2020

Indian seafarers seen disembarking from US cruise ship at the Mumbai Port Trust   -  THE HINDU

Seafarers Day on June 25

Shipping - the mother of all global supply chains – invariably touches the lives of everyone on the planet.

It moves 90 per cent of global trade. Chances are that the mobile phones that you use, the clothes you wear, the petrol you fill in cars and bikes at the local pump and even the food we eat would have come on some of the 60,000 ships that sail across the world’s oceans.

As the pandemic ravaged the world, grinding normal life to a complete halt, ships continued to run carrying food, energy and medical supplies that are necessary to fight the virus.

Far from the chaos unravelling on land, seafarers quietly went about their job of manning and operating the ships, just to keep the global supply chains moving in these troubled times.

Has the governments – the beneficiaries of the efficient, global supply chain — returned the favour by designating them as key workers?

The global travel restrictions robbed seafarers’ legitimate and humanitarian rights to get off ships at the end of their contract tenures and go back to their families. As crew rotation became a casualty of the pandemic, seafarers on board were left with no choice but to continue extending their tour of duty, putting the supply chains at the hands of overworked, tired, stressed and anxious personnel.

That the world has not, fortunately, seen a mishap at sea during the health crisis, is a tribute to the fortitude, resilience, unwavering professionalism and devotion to duty of some 1.3 million seafarers on board ships at any given time. Protecting the marine environment from catastrophic oil spills is also a key part of that regimen.

While doctors, nurses and other emergency workers have been designated as key workers to facilitate their free movements, hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been left to fend for themselves, trapped at sea, without any means to disembark and return home as nations imposed restrictions on crew change.

The insensitivity of governments, politicians and bureaucrats, world over, to close the doors on the face of seafarers who move essential goods, stopping their free movement into and out of their home countries, is a testament to their ignorance of the role these essential workers essay.

The International Maritime Organization, the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations have urged governments to tag seafarers as essential workers and exempt them from travel restrictions so that they can be relieved to ensure safe shipping as well as supply of vital goods without disruptions.

The inaction of the governments to their pleas on tagging crew as key workers and facilitate their unhindered travel has reached a ‘ticking time bomb’ stage from the point of view of supply chain security and humanitarian crisis.

The least, grateful governments worldwide can do is to treat them as essential workers and remove the sense of “abandonment” they feel now, instead of giving lip service to their plight.

The governments can no longer afford to take these professionals who contribute immensely to global trade, for granted. Doing so, would be at their own peril.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the slogan coined by IMO on the occasion of ‘Seafarers Day’ on June 25: ‘Seafarers are key workers - essential to shipping, essential to the world’.

The Day of the Seafarer is when we take stock and appreciate the hard-working, professional and frequently heroic souls that make world trade possible, says Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder and CEO of Singapore-based ship manager Synergy Group.

“We owe them so much, especially now during this pandemic. But this year, the Day is clouded with sadness and frustration,” he said.

While the lockdown restrictions is much to be blamed for confining crew to ships “indefinitely”, Unni said that the situation has been “exacerbated and prolonged by the inaction of politicians and cruelties of bureaucracy which are preventing crew changeovers so seafarers can return home to their worried families”.

“The Day of the Seafarer is not a day for empty words about the bravery and commitment of our seafarers. Today is the day when shipping needs help from our political leaders so that we can help our seafarers. Because, enough really is enough,” he added.

Published on June 24, 2020
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