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Sailors Stuck at Sea, Supply Threatened During Pandemic

FILE - A cargo ship docks as its cargo is unloaded at Haifa's port, northern Israel, Oct. 12, 2020.
FILE - A cargo ship docks as its cargo is unloaded at Haifa's port, northern Israel, Oct. 12, 2020.
Sailors Stuck at Sea, Supply Threatened During Pandemic
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Captain Tejinder Singh has not set foot on dry land in more than seven months. He is not sure when he will go home.

Singh is among tens of thousands of ship workers stuck at sea as the coronavirus spreads on land. He said sailors like him are not valued. He added, "We are forgotten...”

Singh and most of his 20-person crew have traveled from India to the United States then on to China. He spoke to the Reuters news service from the Pacific Ocean as his ship now heads to Australia.

They are among about 100,000 ship workers stuck at sea, says the International Chamber of Shipping, or ICS. Many sailors have been on their boats much longer than their usual 3 to 9 month work periods. Another 100,000 workers are stuck on land and unable to work and earn a living.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading very quickly in parts of Asia— home to many of the world’s 1.7 million ship workers. That has led many countries to restrict land access to visiting workers. Some workers have even been barred from medical treatment. The ICS estimates that just 2.5 percent of ship workers have been vaccinated.

The United Nations calls the situation a crisis at sea. The organization says governments should consider commercial sailors essential workers.

Ships deliver around 90 percent of the world's trade. The crisis threatens worldwide supply for everything from oil and metal to food and electronics.

Guy Platten is the head of the ICS. He said more than one-third of the world’s ship workers are from India and the Philippines. Those countries are recovering from terrible waves of COVID-19.

In normal times, around 50,000 sailors get on and 50,000 get off ships per month on average. The numbers are now much less than that. Industry experts say that is largely because of virus restrictions put in place by countries with major ports in Asia. Nations like South Korea, Taiwan and China require testing for workers who come from or have visited certain countries. Some nations ban crew changes.

Rajesh Unni is head of Synergy Marine Group which represents 14,000 ship workers. He said the only countries that permit regular crew changes are Japan and Singapore.

"The issue is that we have one set of people who desperately want to go home because they have finished their tenure, and another set of people onshore that are desperate to get back onboard to earn a living."

FILE - A cargo truck drives amid stacked shipping containers at the Yangshan port in Shanghai, China, March 29, 2018.
FILE - A cargo truck drives amid stacked shipping containers at the Yangshan port in Shanghai, China, March 29, 2018.

Threats to supply of goods

The crisis has led to almost half of ship workers considering leaving the industry, says the International Transport Workers' Federation, or ITF.

A labor shortage would threaten the industry which has already faced delays at many of the world’s ports. It has also increased the cost of shipping products. And, in turn, the prices people pay for goods.

Stephen Cotton leads the ITF. He said many vessels have lost up to 25 percent of their workforce during the pandemic. And the remaining sailors are now being pushed to their physical and mental limits.

Shots for sailors

Most sailors come from developing nations that have low vaccination supplies. That has left many ship workers unable to get shots.

A total of 55 member countries of the U.N. shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization or IMO, have named ship workers essential.

David Hammond is the head of the organization Human Rights at Sea. He said being considered essential permits the workers to travel more easily and return to their homes. It also gives them better access to vaccines.

The ICF’s Platten said governments with large vaccine supplies have a "moral responsibility" towards ship workers.

"They must follow the lead of the U.S. and the Netherlands and vaccinate non-native crews delivering goods to their ports,” he added.

I’m Dan Novak.

Jonathan Saul and Roslan Khasawneh reported this story for Reuters. Dan Novak adapted for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

variant n. something that is different in some way from others of the same kind

access n. a way of being able to use or get something

essentialadj. extremely important and necessary

desperate adj. very sad and upset because of having little or no hope : feeling or showing despair

tenuren. the amount of time that a person holds a job, office, or title