1.89 million seafarers worldwide operate more than 74,000 merchant ships, providing transport for approximately 90% of world trade
1.89 million seafarers worldwide operate more than 74,000 merchant ships, providing transport for approximately 90% of world trade. This is essential work, but also lonely and dangerous, requiring months at sea, often with little contact with home or land.
COVID-19 has exacerbated many of these floating jobs and sailors around the world are rethinking their commitment to trade. In fact, industry leaders have been warning for months that the pandemic will make it difficult for them to hire workers for years to come. As a result, the global supply chain may soon face a much bigger challenge: chronic labor shortages.
Books and songs have long been about the difficulties of a career at sea. And yet, despite its harsh reputation, there has never been a shortage of recruits, largely because there are still countries where poor long-term economic prospects make work attractive. For example, in 2019, there were nearly 470,000 Filipinos on merchant ships worldwide, which is approximately one-third of the total number of seafarers in the world.
The bill is simple. In exchange for months away from home, merchant ship crews could earn 10 times more than they would in a country like the Philippines.
The transportation industry gets a lot in return. Long hours are the norm, especially for sailors from developing countries. A recent industry report found that Chinese sailors assigned to bulk carriers carrying grain, coal, and other unpackaged cargo worked an average of 15 hours a day, while their European counterparts spent “only” 10 hours.
Long hours are not the only problem. In recent years, several studies have linked factors inherent in the maritime profession, including isolation, lack of leave on shore, nostalgia, and a poor work environment with mental health problems. A 2019 study found that 25% of sailors who responded to a health survey suffer from depression, a share that exceeds the total and working population of the world.
An industry report in 2016 warns that without greater efforts to recruit and retain seafarers, the shipping industry could face labor shortages by 2025. Worse, the shortage is expected to be most acute for officers and other skilled labor such as mechanical engineers who are more likely to have career opportunities that do not require months of absence from home.
COVID-19 has made the task of recruiting and detaining seafarers much more difficult. When the pandemic erupted in early 2020, ports around the world banned sailors from getting on board. A United Nations convention requires seafarers to serve a maximum of 11 months on a ship before landing. In practice, most last from three to six months. Due to COVID, hundreds of thousands of sailors have been stranded on their ships with no prospect of leaving, with some sailors reportedly on board for nearly 17 months.
The good news is that vaccination campaigns targeting sailors have eased conditions in recent months. But there are still tens of thousands of sailors who work months after their contracts on ships without a way to get off-board.
A quarterly survey late last year found that overall mood among seafarers had improved from its lowest levels earlier last year. But that will not erase the memories of the last two years. The study found that an increasing number of sailors are reconsidering their career plans and considering life onshore. “There is likely to be a growing shortage of seafarers in the coming years and there seems to be little or no coherent mechanism to manage the problems that are looming,” the report concluded.
Solving the problem will require a cultural change in the way supply chains and their customers view the well-being of seafarers. To begin with, shipping companies need to play a greater role in supporting seafarers, a responsibility they have traditionally left to reputable charities such as the International Seafarers’ Center. These organizations are to be commended, but as long as seafarers depend on charity to meet their needs, especially in a crisis, they will know that their employers do not have their best interests in mind.
The good news is that large consumer companies that depend on global shipping are starting to notice the problem.
Last year, Unilever Plc, Proctor & Gamble Co., and other consumer brands have prompted governments and shipping companies to do something about stranded ship crews. In the process, they adopted audit tools for their operators to ensure that they comply with the requirements.
This effort should be extended with financial incentives for carriers to encourage them to focus on the well-being of their seafarers. If carriers do not make such commitments, companies must find another way to ship their goods. Such a policy will not only improve the conditions of ships but will also signal to seafarers that their well-being is paramount to customers who depend on them.
Without action from supply chain companies, their customers may soon be looking back on congestion in the world’s ports with affection.