Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of who is and isn’t designated a “key worker” has been a difficult debate, with many arguing that essential services go far, far beyond those provided by doctors and nurses. Although the UK government now officially recognizes seafarers as key workers, it’s arguable that the general public has little idea of the contributions made by these workers to the ongoing maintenance of the supply chain.
“Ninety percent of everything” was how Rose George titled her 2013 book on the shipping industry. That is how important the world’s merchant fleet is to global trade. Yet when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, politicians the world over were seemingly unaware of the significance of cargo-ship crews’ work. Unlike cross-border lorry drivers, airline pilots, and cabin crew, seafarers were not designated as key workers – with tragic consequences for the sailors and their families in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
Stranded at sea
The travel restrictions imposed by governments around the world have made crew changes and repatriation of seafarers massively difficult. The result has been a humanitarian crisis of unheard-of proportions – and one made worse by a widespread lack of interest in the seafarers’ plight. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) estimates that around 400,000 seafarers were stranded on their ships in December 2020 – unable to make their way home and many months past the end of their original contracts. A similar number of seafarers were stuck at home, prevented from joining their ships and earning much-needed money to support their families in countries without welfare networks.