The invisible workforce

Seafarers demand respect for the life-critical services they have tirelessly provided during the pandemic

By Michael Grey

Some years from now, when the historians get to work on the Great Pandemic of 2020-21, it will be interesting to see whether they notice the fact that despite every sort of handicap caused by the global disease, the world’s ships kept sailing. It is an important fact that ought to be emphasised, for if cargo ships had become as inactive as aviation, or the cruise sector, the world would have starved and the lights would have been extinguished.

There has been very little recognition of this fact, or, more importantly, the debt that society owes to the international workforce that has kept up ‘shipping as usual’ in very unusual circumstances. The ships, the ports and the whole transport sector, with its hard-pressed workforce afloat and ashore, remain largely invisible, but truly deserve the thanks of all.

It is worth thinking for a minute about what might have happened if the ships, like so much else that ground to a halt as the pandemic caused its havoc around the world, had not sailed. Every sensible person can recognise the importance of world trade, which enables nations to flourish and wealth to be created. One can perhaps imagine the scale of the global disaster if exports were not carried away, and the ships bringing in the imports had stayed tied up in port, empty. It also doesn’t take too much imagination to consider the speed with which the shelves would empty and the manufacturing processes would come to a halt because of the lack of raw materials, all rendered even more critical in our ‘just in time’ era, where few stocks are ever carried.

Better acknowledgment

As the pandemic spread around the world, certain governments congratulated themselves on the way that they had been able to isolate their countries from the worst of the plague. But they still depended on the ships which carried their imports and exports, even though they may not have acknowledged the debt they owed to the people who crewed them. It is time that the efforts of these ‘key workers’ are recognised, because to date, they have not been.

How often do we see, in our mainstream media, anything about the importance of the seafaring workforce and just what it has had to put up with since Covid-19 was identified? There might have been some attention paid to the unusual sight of fleets of cruise ships idling in port, or angry editorials about ‘port congestion’ caused by container imbalances or problems that delayed the ferries. But it is often as if these great fleets of ships upon which all of us so utterly depend operate automatically, without any human agency. Their crews, the lives they live and the way this has been hugely distorted by the pandemic – all are invisible.

Everyone in the industry knows of the problems of crew reliefs, of the misery of being confined on board when the ship gets to port after a long sea passage, with no possibility of shore leave. All in the business are aware of the difficulties that are faced by people who are months over their contract tour length, and those ‘trapped’ ashore unable to re-join their ships.

But ashore, in the corridors of power, where the rules and regulations are made, there seems to be little knowledge of the damage being done to the health and happiness of this vital international workforce. Despite the efforts of the industry’s institutions and the demands for seafarers to be given ‘key worker’ status and treated accordingly, it always seems to be easier to ignore them. The ships, it is assumed, will keep on sailing.