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Seafarers and identifying key workers

Photo: Marcus Hand seafarers.jpg
“We are essential workers – you are not quite so important – they are non-essential and must take their chances with everyone else”.

It’s become something of a matter for debate, as people jostle for a place in the pecking order for Covid tests, vaccines, privileged medical treatment and freedom from the various prohibitions that prevent us from doing what we once did.

There is already a long list of “key” workers, whose occupations are deemed to be absolutely essential to the public good and an even longer list of aspirants to this title. It must be an unenviable task to decide whether age or ethnicity, skill or experience, qualifies somebody for a movement forward in the queue. The ultimate choice might, of course be something to do with who shouts the loudest, or is best represented by lawyers, government departments or militant trade unions.

Is a care worker more “essential” than the man who collects the bins?  Should a school teacher facing several hundred snotty children each day be considered more of a “key” person than a supermarket worker? Is a road haulier more vital to our wellbeing than a bus driver? It is a brave person who would be prepared to make such decision, and whatever is decided, it will merely stoke controversy, while the virus happily mutates. 

Protecting the 'logistics chain'

While most people seem to agree that difficult priorities have to be established, one group of essential workers have continued to be grossly neglected in most parts of the world. It is strange that we recognise that the “logistics chain” must be protected at all costs, lest we starve in the cold and dark, while omitting one important element within its vital connections.

We have no trouble in deciding that the links at both ends of the logistic chain are essential and manned by “key” workers, like van drivers, road hauliers, port operators and people who work in vast warehouses. But completely invisible, and thus not registering in any way, is the marine transport component and the million and a half people who operate the ships we all depend upon, if we did but know it. The “bit in the middle” somehow has got lost.

Merchant seafarers continue to be ignored

It has been said in the recent past, when shipping people bewail their political and public invisibility, that if you asked anyone in the street where their goods or fuel came from they would identify only the supermarket truck or the tanker at the local garage, as the benign agencies that keep them supplied. But this stubborn and ignorant refusal to look a bit further along the transport chain didn’t matter as much as it does now, when the desperate plight of the world’s merchant seafarers continues to be ignored.

This situation may have been largely unseen by the world’s mainstream media, with a few notable exceptions, but there is no reasonable excuse for politicians sitting on their hands and hoping the problem of crew exchanges or the treatment of seafarers will go away.

Virtually all of the industry’s institutions have by now clearly set out the increasingly critical situation, with authorities clamping down as new variants of the virus have been identified and making it even harder to effect a crew exchange in very many places. What more can be done, other than bringing marine transport to a halt, with unimaginable consequences? It is to the tremendous credit of all that this “nuclear option” has very rarely been mentioned. Maybe, if governments are to ever take the problem seriously, it ought to be actually threatened more.

Access to test and vaccinations

Why would it be such a massive step to designate seafarers as key workers and ensure that they had simple access to tests and vaccinations, if that is what it would take to get them moving smoothly between ship and shore and vice-versa? Ah, you might say, who should be responsible for this step – the nation state of the seafarers, the flag state or the port or coastal state?  Surely, this doesn’t matter as long as somebody recognises their “key” status and makes the facilities available. Look at what they are doing in Singapore, where they look for solutions, rather than problems and learn from them, for a start.

 If seafarers, can, by international treaty obligations, access medical assistance at a port, why cannot this right be extrapolated to enable them to be vaccinated anywhere the stuff is available? With the average crew of a cargo ship being around twenty, would it be such a huge burden for a port state, which is, after all, thus protecting itself? Isn’t it just self-interest, to move this forward?  


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