This weekend is one of the planet’s busiest shopping sprees, with an estimated GBP66bn to be spent in the UK alone over Black Friday and Cyber Monday, much of it online. Yet as shoppers click and wait to collect, there is a crisis at sea among the people whose work brings us these goods.
It is no exaggeration to say that without shipping the global marketplace would collapse. It is responsible for the movement of 90% of all global trade. Even in normal circumstances, more than a million seafarers labour daily on the vessels that make up the world cargo fleet, their work barely noticed by consumers. As Covid-19 has ravaged the world, they have helped keep the global economy functioning, unseen.
As Guardian Seascape has repeatedly reported, however, nearly 400,000 of these seafarers are trapped by the crew change crisis. Most have not been designated key workers during the pandemic, and have remained effectively imprisoned on board their vessels – unable to change crews at ports, and therefore unable to return to their homes and loved ones.
The silence on the plight of these stranded seafarers is widespread: from the governments that have decided shipping crew are not essential workers, to the major retailers that profit from tremendous sales. This failure takes on renewed importance now, as new vaccines against Covid-19 are developed and the conversation turns to who should be inoculated first. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN body for shipping and seafarers, has failed to get countries to uphold standards of care and repatriation for seafarers. They are, in effect, lost at sea.
Many have been so for more than a year, with their physical and mental wellbeing deteriorating rapidly as a result. They work in some of the world’s toughest conditions to satisfy global retail demand, and their struggle has been recognised by Pope Francis and Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations. As yet, however, we have heard little from those in the retail sector who actually have the power to make a difference.
The majority of shipping seafarers are from the Philippines, China and India, and it is perhaps the case that some in the west see their plight as a problem for the other side of the world. But shipping is a truly global enterprise, and the potential ramifications of continued indifference are just as universal. Not only does the humanitarian crisis at sea worsen every day, but the failing health of our seafarers affects productivity, which in turn hurts the seamless transportation of goods around the world.
As things stand, a few major retailers are poised to profit immensely from the work of seafearers in the rush for goods on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The International Chamber of Shipping has written an open letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, asking him to use his influence to exert pressure on governments to recognise seafarers as key workers, so that they can change crews, go home and be reunited with their families.
The plight of seafarers is global, and requires a global response. Governments must give seafarers the same rights as other essential workers, and corporate responsibility must extend to seafarers as it does to other employees. Retail profiteering at the hands of trapped men and women must end. Until then, before you click “add to cart,” spare a thought for the seafarers whose work will help deliver the contents of that cart to the comfort of your home, even while they can’t get home themselves.
o Nusrat Ghani is MP for Wealden and a former maritime minister. Guy Platten is secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping