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The welfare of 400,000 stranded sailors must not be forgotten

The welfare of 400,000 stranded sailors must not be forgotten

Some 400,000 sailors have been left "stranded" because they are blocked from disembarking in their home countries or travelling to other ports to allow crew changes

3 min read

The merchant navy is key to the world's recovery from this crisis. But hundreds of thousands of sailors remain stranded. It’s time for the UK take the global lead and ensure they can get home safely

Shipping forms the sinews of our global village, and maritime transport is the engine of globalisation. The global economy and the financial recovery after the pandemic relies on maritime trade. And yet that very trade is in crisis.

The cause is the impact of coronavirus restrictions on merchant navy crews of all nations. In the UK we often ignore the fact that 95% by volume of UK trade and 80% of world trade is carried by sea. Some 96,000 ships manned by 1.8million sailors facing hardships on a routine basis now pushed to breaking point by the pandemic.

Over 400,000 sailors are stranded by travel restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic which bar crew from disembarking to return to their home country, or from travelling to a port where their ship is waiting for a crew change. In addition, many seafarers are also struggling to obtain entry or exit visas.

There are growing concerns over the fatigue of seafarers resulting from this crisis as many are serving well beyond their normal tours of duty, which raises concerns over safety. Under maritime rules, a seafarer is allowed to spend 11 months at sea, but some have now been at sea for up to 15 months.

Ships have already refused to sail and matters will worsen as captains could be found criminally culpable if they sailed a vessel where concerns of fatigue had been raised. The International Transport Workers’ Federation, said that after June 16 the labour agreement could no longer be extended to allow workers to remain at sea well beyond their contracts. 

The International Chamber of Shipping and the International Maritime Organisation, both headquartered in London, are extremely worried. Last month, the IMO published a two-step protocol for safe crew changes. But governments have been slow to implement them and the number of crew stranded at sea is rising on a weekly basis. 

The industry is now calling on governments to create “safe corridors” that would allow free movement of seafarers. These include designating seafarers as “key workers” who can travel without restrictions when leaving or joining a vessel, creating safe areas in airports for their transit, and accepting official maritime documents as proof of identity.

Some countries such as the Netherlands have taken some action, but it is not coordinated internationally and is too slow. In the UK, we have given seafarers “key worker” status but this needs to be reflected globally.

The UK remains a great maritime nation and our government should take the lead in implementing measures to ensure action is taken worldwide to safeguard the sailors, who will ensure a UK and global recovery as the present crisis subsides.

That seaborne trade is currently assessed as worth $7 trillion and is at risk. Governments need to understand that these are essential workers and there is an urgent need to establish safe corridors between key countries and key crew change hubs around the world. 

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin, has already offered the support of the Royal Navy in this endeavour.

All parts of the global shipping industry are aware of the problem, but someone has to coordinate action and the UK is well placed to take the lead, not least as London remains the focus for world shipping.

Lastly, although fundamental to the UK’s and worldwide economic recovery this is a pressing humanitarian issue, the welfare of our and other seamen must not be forgotten. We owe them so much.

Lord West of Spithead is a Labour peer and former First Sea Lord


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