Adam Minter / Bloomberg
Nov 16 – There are dozens of ships anchored off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this week, imperiling global supply chains and holiday gifts. Also imperiled? The safety and well-being of the seafarers working on those ships, many of whom haven’t touched land in more than a year due to pandemic-era restrictions and the backup of vessels vying for berths in clogged ports. Among other issues, seafarers stuck on ships report declining mental and physical health, with limited access to medical care, growing tensions between crew members and fatigue that labor groups say jeopardizes maritime safety.
Few know their plight as well as Pat Pettit, the general manager of the International Seafarers Center of Long Beach/Los Angeles. For four decades, she has provided seafarers with everything from temporary housing to shipside drop-off of Amazon orders to car rides to the grocery store.
What others call a supply-chain problem is, for her, a human crisis. “This is far worse than all the years I’ve been around,” she told me. “We don’t know if they’ll bounce back,” she said of ship-bound workers.
The world’s 1.89 million seafarers operate more than 74,000 merchant ships, providing transportation for roughly 90% of global trade. It’s an essential job, but also a lonely and dangerous one that requires months at sea, often with little ability to contact home or touch land. Covid worsened many of these floating workplaces, and seafarers worldwide are now rethinking their commitment to the trade. Indeed, for months industry leaders have warned that the pandemic will make it more difficult for them to hire workers for years to come. As a result, the global supply chain could soon face a more debilitating challenge: a chronic labor shortage.
Literature and song have long documented the hardships entailed in a career at sea. Yet despite the harsh reputation, the seafaring profession has never really lacked for recruits, in large part because there remain countries where poor long-term economic prospects make the job appealing. For example, in 2019, there were nearly 470,000 Filipinos deployed on merchant ships worldwide, roughly one-third of the world’s total.
The calculus used to be simple. In exchange for months away from home, merchant ship crews could earn 10 times what they would in a country such as the Philippines.
The shipping industry receives plenty in return. Long hours are the norm, especially for seafarers from emerging-market countries. A recent industry report found that Chinese seafarers assigned to bulk carriers, which transport grain, coal and other unpackaged cargo, worked an average of 15 hours a day, while their European counterparts put in a “mere” 10 hours.
It isn’t just the workload that takes a toll. In recent years, several studies have linked factors inherent to the seafaring trade, including isolation, lack of shore leave, homesickness and abusive workplaces to mental health issues. A 2019 study found that 25% of seafarers responding to a health survey had scores indicating depression, a share that exceeds the general and working populations.
In 2016, an industry report warned that without greater efforts to recruit and retain seafarers, the shipping industry could face a labor shortfall by 2025. Making matters worse, the shortages were projected to be most acute for officers and other skilled labor such as mechanical engineers who are more likely to have landbound career options that don’t require months away from home.
Covid made the task of recruiting and retaining seafarers substantially harder. As the pandemic spread in early 2020, ports around the world prohibited seafarers from disembarking. A United Nations convention requires that seafarers serve a maximum of 11 months on a ship before a break on land. In practice, most serve three to six months. Due to Covid, hundreds of thousands of seafarers were stuck on their ships with no prospect of leaving, with reports of some seafarers trapped at sea for 17 months.
The good news is that vaccination campaigns focused on seafarers have eased conditions in recent months. But there are still tens of thousands of seafarers working months past their contracts on ships, with no way of disembarking.
A quarterly survey late last month found that the overall mood among seafarers has improved from all-time lows earlier this year. But that won’t erase memories of the last two years. The survey found an increasing number of sailors were reconsidering their career plans and contemplating a life onshore. “There is likely to be a growing shortfall in seafarers in the coming years, and there is seemingly little or no coherent mechanism to manage the problems coming over the horizon,” the report concluded.
Addressing the issue would require a cultural shift in how supply chains and their customers view the welfare of seafarers. To start, shipping companies need to play a larger role in supporting seafarers, a responsibility that they have traditionally left to venerable charitable organizations like the International Seafarers Center. Those organizations should be commended, but so long as seafarers depend upon charity to meet their needs, especially in a crisis, they will know that their employers don’t have their best interests in mind.
The good news is major consumer companies that depend upon global shipping are beginning to take notice. Last year, Unilever Plc, Proctor & Gamble Co. and other consumer brands pushed governments and shipping companies to do something about stranded ship crews. In the process, they adopted a toolkit to audit their carriers to ensure they were complying. That effort should be expanded, with financial incentives for carriers to encourage them to focus on the well-being of their seafarers. If carriers don’t oblige, businesses should find another way to ship their goods. Such a policy will not only improve conditions on ships but will telegraph to seafarers that their well-being is paramount to the customers who depend upon them.
Without action from supply-chain companies, their customers might soon look back on the traffic jams at the world’s ports with fondness. After all, those ships had crews.