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COVID-19

Relief sought for ship workers stuck at sea

Scott Tong Sep 24, 2020
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A French container ship and a Hong Kong cargo carrier, off the shore of Hong Kong's Lamma Island, were placed under a quarantine order after some crew members tested positive for COVID-19 in July. Daniel Suen/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Relief sought for ship workers stuck at sea

Scott Tong Sep 24, 2020
Heard on:
A French container ship and a Hong Kong cargo carrier, off the shore of Hong Kong's Lamma Island, were placed under a quarantine order after some crew members tested positive for COVID-19 in July. Daniel Suen/AFP via Getty Images
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Some 300,000 people who work on commercial vessels — the kinds that carry food and health and hygiene products, among other things — are stuck on their ships, unable to get off due to COVID-19 measures. Governments around the world have closed ports, borders and other travel facilities that allow crew changes.

Not being able to change crews on these ships is a problem for the health and safety of workers, as well as a pretty good way to clog up supply chains.

Now, the CEOs of some of the largest consumer products companies — Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson — are weighing in on what they say is a question of human rights on the high seas.

Typically, commercial ship workers sign contracts of six, 10 or 12 months. And when that’s up, the ships swap crews at the next port.

“But whenever they came near the ports, the port is not allowing any kind of transfer,” said Branko Berlan with the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

He said some workers have been stuck onboard for 17 months, and some ports are accepting products but not people. In one case, several ports refused to take the body of a ship worker who died.

“And then we actually find a way that the body was taken in Singapore after 15 days onboard the ship,” Berlan said.

The issue of overworked crews is clogging up the supply chain.

Tom Derry, CEO of the Institute for Supply Management, said officials in places like Australia are starting to ban improperly staffed ships from sailing.

“Because we’re seeing these ships taken out of circulation as it were, we’ve seen rates for freight crossing the Pacific more than quadruple since June,” he said.

Derry said delays are causing fridge and dishwasher shortages in the U.S. And keeping goods moving is critical to the multinational firms now pressuring the United Nations to get involved, including the Consumer Goods Forum.

“We can’t face the risk of global supply chains being disrupted. And all of this at the expense of workers’ well-being,” said Didier Bergeret, the forum’s director.

Meantime, the workers remain mostly invisible, said Andrew Kinsey, marine risk consultant at the insurer Allianz.

“When you go into a store and you look at items on the shelves, the way they got to that shelf was via ship,” he said. “As a consumer, we’re blind to it.”

About 80% of goods in the world are delivered by sea.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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