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Cargo owners’ muscle needed to get seafarers home

Shipowners should seek the support of their powerful customers in the global effort to allow routine crew changes to resume

A coalition of shipowners and shippers is more likely to gain the ear of overstretched decision makers and reach agreement on a fixed set of crew change procedures

SHIPOWNERS and shipmanagers do not have the political clout or connections to resolve the crew crisis on their own.

That much has become clear in recent weeks, with only slow progress made in resolving the situation despite an unprecedented collective effort that has brought the entire maritime industry together.

But their customers, which include some of the world’s biggest corporations and brands, probably do have the power to make a difference.

They are the ones that have direct contact with policy makers, unlike all but a handful of shipping companies.

Right now, retailers in the US and Europe are under pressure to boycott apparel and other merchandise produced by persecuted Uighur Muslims in China.

Those same companies will be shipping their cargoes on vessels crewed by seafarers who are trapped at sea because no port will allow them to disembark and fly home. There are loose parallels here, although no one wants shippers to stop using certain lines. What is needed is their help.

Most are probably unaware of this humanitarian emergency that they are effectively endorsing. It is now up to the shipping industry to team up with cargo interests in a joint approach to authorities around the world to find a global solution.

With reputations at stake, should the general public wake up to the fact that their favourite supermarkets, stores or designer labels were turning a blind eye to the plight of these “key workers”, it should not be too difficult for shipowners and operators to gather support from their customers.

But it will need to be led by industry heavyweights to really be effective.

In the container trades, top carriers such as Maersk, CMA CGM and Hapag-Lloyd, which are already well-connected politically, could team up with a handful of their best-known customers and lobby on behalf of all stakeholders.

Similarly, it is remiss of miners such as BHP and Rio Tinto, whose profiles tout a corporate social responsibility agenda, to let those men and women on the ships that bring their commodities to market to do so under such circumstances.

National oil companies who rely on tankers to ship their oil and products need to pressure their government owners and insist on changing restrictive immigration and quarantine policies and opening up airline corridors.

US and European producers who always manage to secure the ear of ministers when lobbying for change in their own interest should use this access to ensure they get the message too.

For this is not about individual operators, but about all those who work at sea.

The big shipowners, charterers and shipmanagers may be able to charter aircraft or use the company jet to fly crew home, but most cannot afford to do that.

So the industry leaders need to flex their muscles on behalf of the whole maritime world, and should not be shy about seeking the support of their customers who, after all, have a lot to lose if awareness of this crisis grows, and they find themselves being named and shamed on social media. 

This is the time when all parties involved in the transport chain need to pull together to ensure crew change procedures are harmonised and simplified in key hubs, so that seafarers no longer suffer from the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome.

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