As The Virus Rages On Shore, Merchant Seamen Are Stranded On Board
The merchant seamen who keep the world warmed and fed are trapped in floating prisons
“I’m not comfortable in my chair with such a crew,” says the captain of a cargo vessel in the South Atlantic en route from Bermuda to Singapore. He is eight months into a four-month contract, and almost everyone on board has also already worked at least double his contracted time. He hopes Singapore will accept that sailors who have seen almost no one but each other for months pose no infection risk and permit a crew change. If not, some may refuse to keep working. On June 16th an industry-wide agreement to allow emergency contract extensions expired, but that is no guarantee that ports will open up. “Believe me,” he says, “the situation is critical.”
When Rose George, a journalist, wrote about the shipping industry in 2013, she called her book “Ninety Percent of Everything” to convey its importance to global trade. But during the covid-19 crisis almost none of the mariners who keep the world fed, warmed and entertained have been allowed on shore. At any moment 1.2m are in cargo vessels on the high seas. (Half as many again work on cruise ships or vessels transporting goods within a single country’s territory.) At least 250,000 have finished their contracts and have no idea when they will be relieved. Similar numbers are stuck at home with no idea when they will next get work. Both totals are rising by tens of thousands each week.
Source: The Economist June 18 2020