For nearly a week, the world was fixated on the spectacle of a mammoth cargo carrier blocking the Suez Canal, causing billions of dollars of damage to the global economy with every passing day.
It was a surreal experience for advocates who have spent the past year trying to draw attention to the hundreds of thousands of mariners who are stranded on container ships because of the pandemic, creating what has been described as a “humanitarian crisis at sea.” While more than 90% of goods used worldwide are transported by ship, few consumers stop to think about the lengthy ocean voyage involved, or the plight of seafarers who go months or years without seeing their families to make that possible.
The crisis in the canal forced the world’s attention on ships that despite their massive size are often all but invisible, suddenly making plain the extent to which global trade relies on vessels such as the Ever Given and their crews, who predominantly come from developing nations.
“Hero is a strong word, but they really have kept society moving for the past 13 months,” said Stephen Cotton, the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents seafarers worldwide.
For many of the seafarers who found themselves stuck in the Suez Canal last week, the delays were a new source of stress that added to what has already been a difficult year. When countries closed their borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in March 2020, hundreds of thousands of workers at sea were left stranded, unable to return home or set foot on shore when their ships arrived in port. Under international labor standards, crews are required to rotate off ships every 11 months to avoid burnout, but many long ago hit that milestone and still have no idea when they might be able to disembark.
“Seafarers must not be forgotten as soon as this incident is over,” the United Kingdom-based International Chamber of Shipping said in a Monday statement after the Ever Given was freed.
About 200,000 mariners worldwide are either unable to leave their ships or travel to ports to relieve crew members who have exceeded their contracts, according to the organization.
That has added new strain to what was already a taxing job: Seafarers must work long shifts, often staying up overnight to keep watch, while bunking in cramped quarters and having little to no contact with the outside world. In September, the Consumer Goods Forum pleaded with the United Nations for help, warning that well-intentioned travel restrictions had “inadvertently created a modern form of forced labor.”
Advocates for mariners have warned that crew fatigue is a safety issue, and that seafarers’ mental health is suffering. The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network found that the number of reported suicides among seafarers roughly doubled over the past year; it said the true extent of the problem may be vastly understated.
“When someone goes overboard, there is always a question mark: Was it suicide or was it an accident?” executive director Robert Harris told Lloyd’s List last month. “I’ve been told by at least two shipping companies that sometimes it is suspected as suicide, but it is reported as ‘missing at sea’ because the family wouldn’t get a payout from the protection and indemnity club.”
It is not clear whether crew exhaustion was a factor in the grounding of the Ever Given. The International Transport Workers’ Federation has determined that the 25 crew members — all Indian nationals — were not yet over-contract, and that all had been onboard for less than six months.
Still, the organization has called for an investigation that will examine whether larger systemic issues in the industry, such as crew fatigue, played a role. “We always worry that it’s very easy to blame seafarer error,” Cotton told The Washington Post. Rather than single out a culprit, “we want to understand what happened so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Abdulgani Serang, the general secretary for National Union of Seafarers of India, wrote on social media Saturday that he had been in touch with the crew, who he described as “fine but stressed out.”
The shipping industry uses the term “sea blindness” to describe the general public’s lack of awareness about the critical role seafarers and ocean networks play in global commerce. While the United Nations has designated ship crews as essential workers and urged other governments to do the same, that designation has led to little change, and many mariners still have no idea when they might be able to take a break or return home, more than a year into the pandemic.
Meanwhile, as coronavirus vaccines become available worldwide, people working at sea do not have ready access to vaccination clinics or medical facilities. More than half the shipping industry’s workforce comes from developing nations, where vaccines are in short supply, Guy Platten, the secretary-general for the United Kingdom-based International Chamber of Shipping, told The Washington Post on Friday.
Such logistical challenges will continue to be an issue long after the traffic jam in the Suez Canal is unsnarled. Hopefully, Platten said, one take-away of the Ever Given saga is that consumers will be more aware of the lengthy and arduous voyage that products take to get to their door, and “think about the seafarers who deliver those goods that we all take for granted.”