As Covid-19 spread across the world last year, many countries and companies took an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it came to seafarers.
When we pick up an avocado from our local supermarket shelf, many of us tend to look at two things. First, the price. Second, the origin of the produce. After all, we’ve all heard about the environmental impact attached to shipping in this brunch superfood. But as today is World Seafarers Day, it’s worth reflecting on how few of us consider the incredible amounts of shipping work and cost that go in to getting that avocado into our shopping basket.
Every year, some 11 billion tons of goods are transported by ship. This represents a remarkable 1.5 tons per person based on the current global population. The people responsible for making sure these goods arrive to their destinations are seafarers; there’s around 1.6 million of them. The majority are from the Philippines, China and India and have little representation in the national conversation or rights as workers.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, this group has suffered an extraordinary amount. Indeed, as a society, we seem more obsessed with provenance of a product than the sweat and toil it takes getting it onto our shelves.
Over the last year and a half, seafarers have faced a mental and wellbeing crisis like few other industries. According to a 2019 report, seafarers suffer from far higher rates of depression than the general population: one in four, versus less than one in ten among the wider public. And that was before the pandemic unfolded.
As Covid-19 spread across the world last year, many countries and companies took an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ when it came to seafarers. This group was left stranded at sea for months on end, and has been denied the basic rights afforded to other key workers across the world; many have not seen their families in over a year. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated that as of last December “400,000 seafarers are … stranded on their ships”. New figures show seafarer abandonment (when a company stops paying or looking after its seafarers) is at an all-time high.
As the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) points out, most cargo ships do not have a fully trained doctor or nurse on board. Medical treatment is not provided by a professional. As it’s now routine for FTSE100 companies to offer privatised healthcare as an incentive for their land-based workers, it’s not good enough that their key workers are left with sticking plasters at sea.
Last year, alongside the secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping Guy Platten, I wrote about the appalling situation facing seafarers stranded at sea. We called for governments to give seafarers keyworker status, and companies to extend corporate responsibility to seafarers as they do to other employees. Now half a year later, we’re just beginning to see action – although there is more to do.
Proactive measures to vaccinate seafarers are beginning to be rolled out. India has opened vaccination centres in six major ports. In Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands are leading the charge, and America is doing the same. However, this process needs to be sped up; a recent survey found 87% of seafarers are still waiting to receive their first vaccine. And repatriation of seafarers is still too far down governments’ agendas.
What more can be done? Two things. First, we need a global governmental effort to vaccinate all seafarers. They should be able to receive both jabs in different ports. This is not only the economically savvy thing to do, but crucially the right thing to do. As a Global Britain, we should take a leading role on this.
We will need to trade our way out of Covid-19, and we need seafarers to keep trade flowing. Likewise, a strategy to repatriate seafarers who have been stranded for months must be taken on by governments.
Second, companies must take more responsibility for ensuring the welfare of their seafaring workers. The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach many have taken is not good enough. Companies reliant on seafarers, such as Amazon, should be extending the same level of care to them as they do with their land-based employees.
Finally, as consumers, we can all be more mindful of how the goods we buy turn up in our stores. As a Trustee of the brilliant Seafarers’ Charity, I will be joining the fundraiser to walk 400,000 steps next month in support of stranded seafarers and their families. It’s one step we can take to ensure we keep seafarers in our minds and the site of businesses and governments.
The article is also available here.