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World Maritime Day-2021: Seafarers at the heart of shipping


Gul Hameed[i]


Oceans have provided opportunities to connect with far-off lands and conduct trade activities. Today, 80% of global trade by volume takes place through sea routes. This large-scale trade activity owes greatly to the services of seafarers facing perils of the ocean. This year COVID-19 has held sway, with countries imposing travel restrictions and lockdowns. This has severely affected life onboard ships and rendered seafarers the most affected by the movement restrictions. During the worst of the previous year, the ships continued to transport medical facilities, food, and other indispensable commodities and, somehow, kept things going.

As seafarers’ jobs involve international traveling and rapid relocation, travel restrictions have badly affected their lives, with hundreds of thousands stranded on the ships and many more unable to join the ships. The World Maritime Day theme for 2021 is “Seafarers: at the core of shipping’s future” and International Maritime Organization (IMO) has declared 2021 as the year of action for the seafaring community. Despite its indispensable role in the global economy, the seafaring community faces unprecedented challenges because of travel restrictions and lockdowns. World Maritime Day 2021 seeks to highlight the vital role seafarers have played, and also the suffering they have endured due to prevalent COVID-19 conditions.

Maritime commerce plays an important role in the global economy. Billions of the people in the developing world depend on ships and related industries. The shipping industry has played a key role in improving global living standards and has pulled millions of people out of poverty. The maritime transport industry is one of the oldest and plays a crucial role in a modern-day global economy. On any given day, over 55000 cargo ships remain active in global trade. Every day, around 1.5 million seamen are working on cargo ships alone to transport goods like food, raw material, fuel, and cars, to mention only a few. With this massive share, shipping constitutes a huge part of everyday global trade activities; however, the pandemic has affected it seriously. Having to work in confined places on the ships in close proximity to one other, the sailors are more prone to contagious diseases. Travel restrictions and lockdowns have caused grave problems for the ports and ships and this has seriously affected the global economy in many ways.

The very nature of international shipping necessitates the seafarers to travel by air to and from their ships where they work for months on end before they can be repatriated through air travel. With the suspension of international flights, crew change has become increasingly difficult and resultantly many are stranded on board and many others can’t travel to replace them. This situation has not only affected global trade activities, but also impacted the economy, and mental and physical health of the seafaring community.

Life onboard commercial ships are characterized by inclement weather and extended working hours a day in and day out. Above all, seafarers onboard ships are exposed to safety hazards like fire, man overboard incidents and electric shock accidents, etc. Many of these common accidents occur due to negligence, human error, exhaustion, and depression resulting from extended periods of time aboard ships. Extended exposure to this environment without any break can cause problems with the physiological and psychological well-being of the crew. Crew changes, therefore, are necessary after a certain period of time to protect seafarers’ health and promote safe maritime trade. Seafarers cannot work for an indefinite period of time without serious consequences both for their health and the safe operation of the ships. Spending extended time on board can result in health and safety hazards and many of the seafarers stranded on ships have already voiced their concerns, anxiety, and exhaustion.

International law dictates that those working on ships have a right to be repatriated by the end of their contracts. Usually, seafarers spend a few months on board followed by months off ships. The maximum period a seafarer is allowed on board without leave is 11 months; however, today a quarter-million of ship workers have gone more than 18 months stranded on ships. Given the harsh environment and hectic life on ships, this is very dangerous for their physical and mental health. At any given time, nearly one million workers are working on nearly 60,000 cargo vessels, and as of July 2021, more than 250,000 seafarers are stranded onboard without any prospect of uniting with their families any sooner. Considering the critical role shipping plays in a global economy, one-fourth of total seamen thus stranded and many more being jobless, global trade is bound to collapse significantly.

Every government, as per the suggestion of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) must frame and enforce measures to ensure the safety of the seafaring community. Governments are encouraged to extend their cooperation towards seafarers by providing them the necessary support, i.e. exemption from movement restrictions. This will allow the seamen to travel to and from their ships. Seamen must also be provided emergency medical facilities and emergency repatriation in case of any medical exigency. IMO has also advised a set of step-by-step protocols dictating effective measures for repatriation and crew exchange. These protocols also recommend necessary measures with regard to the provision of personal protective equipment, social distancing, COVID-testing facilities, and hygiene precautions. Moreover, these protocols dictate requirements for shipping companies and governments for effective handling of the problems.

In a resolutionon international cooperation to redress seafarer’s problems caused by the pandemic, the United Nations has urged all the stakeholders to solve the problems of those stranded at sea or unable to join ships due to travel restrictions. Moreover, the UN has also called on the member states to declare marine personnel as key workers and allow for their timely repatriation. However, it still remains the responsibility of every single world government to frame and enforce special measures to rescue the seamen badly affected by COVID protocols and lockdowns.

The international community is well aware of how seafarers and shipping services have contributed to the effective functioning of global supply chains during the pandemic. However, in doing so, the seafaring community has suffered beyond what the ordinary course of nature can allow. With one-fourth of the seafaring community stranded or unable to embark on commercial vessels, the global trade, as well as the physical and mental health of seafarers, is at stake and dire measures are needed to help curb the gravity of the situation.


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