(NEW YORK POST) – The United Nations chief on Thursday implored countries to cooperate in repatriating 300,000 stranded mariners who have been stuck at sea throughout the pandemic, some of whom have not been home in a year or more.
Working back-to-back 12-hour shifts, often without weekends, the merchant mariners are buckling under the strain — which could have a disastrous effect on the global supply chain, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday.
Meanwhile, on land, the lack of ability to get onto the ships has stranded an equal number of mariners who would like to report for duty, Guterres said.
“I remain very concerned about the growing humanitarian and safety crisis facing hundreds of thousands of these indispensable workers,” Guterres said in a statement, speaking of the 2 million people who transport 80% of the world’s goods. “Despite the unprecedented conditions brought about by the pandemic, seafarers have continued to tirelessly support the often-invisible global logistics chain. Physically and mentally exhausted, away from their families and loved ones, their time at sea has now been extended far beyond the standards stipulated in international conventions, with some tours of duty now stretching more than 17 months. Fatigued seafarers cannot operate indefinitely, and disruptions to international shipping would have devastating consequences.”
The plea came amid bickering between the U.S., China and Russia over the pandemic response in general, the Associated Press reported.
The stranded mariners are caught in the middle.
“When the pandemic broke out, life onboard became difficult almost immediately,” said Captain Hedi Marzougui, at the meeting between shipping executives and government officials this week, a side event to the U.N. General Assembly.
He recounted how crew changes, shore leave and medical leaves “were suspended or became very difficult to perform” and urged those in attendance to picture “if you had worked every day for 12 hours with no weekend without seeing your loved ones,” he said. “Now add that you have to do that with no idea when you will be repatriated.”
Previous accounts have detailed harrowing scenarios of captains pulling teeth, and looming collective mental health crises.
“Mariners are human beings first, and should be treated as such,” Marzougui said.
France proposed compiling a global UN list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes, the Associated Press reported. Kenya called for sharing costs globally for a rapid testing plan for major ports.
Guterres noted that there are plenty of options, and implored the international community to work together. Designating marine personnel as essential workers, and implementing protocols developed by UN agencies along with the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers’ Federation would allow “stranded seafarers to be repatriated and others to join ships,” Guterres said.
Keeping them healthy and functioning is vital, business leaders said in a letter to Guterres signed by members of the Consumer Goods Forum, a coalition of leaders from 400 retailers, manufacturers and service providers.
“Seafarers are essential workers that keep global supply chains functioning,” said Unilever’s Chief Supply Chain Officer, Marc Engel, in a statement from Global Compact, the UN consortium of business leaders seeking sustainable commerce. “Without them, there are no masks, no COVID tests, no hand sanitizers, or other essential goods. There is no food, there is no medicine. These supply chains are on the verge of serious disruption.”
Echoing the humanitarian concerns of Guterres, the Consumer Goods Forum warned, “The situation has also inadvertently created a modern form of forced labor.”