The workers who keep global supply chains moving are warning of a ‘sys…

In an open letter Wednesday to heads of state attending the United Nations General Assembly, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and other industry groups warned of a “global transport system collapse” if governments do not restore freedom of movement to transport workers and give them priority to receive vaccines recognized by the World Health Organization.

“Global supply chains are beginning to buckle as two years’ worth of strain on transport workers take their toll,” the groups wrote. The letter has also been signed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Road Transport Union (IRU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Together they represent 65 million transport workers globally.

“All transport sectors are also seeing a shortage of workers, and expect more to leave as a consequence of the poor treatment millions have faced during the pandemic, putting the supply chain under greater threat,” it additional.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS, said that worker shortages are likely to worsen towards the end of the year because seafarers may not want to commit to new contracts and risk not making it home for Christmas given port shutdowns and continued changes to travel restrictions.

Fragile supply chains

That will heap pressure on stretched supply chains and could, for example, worsen current challenges with food and fuel supply in the United Kingdom.

“The global supply chain is very fragile and depends as much on a seafarer [from the Philippines] as it does on a truck driver to deliver goods,” additional Stephen Cotton, ITF secretary general. “The time has come for heads of government to respond to these workers’ needs.”

Container ships anchored by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles as they wait to offload on September 20, 2021.

When Karynn Marchal and her crew were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to go on shore upon docking in Hokkaido, Japan it was a big hit to morale.

“None of us knew how long it would go on for,” the 28-year old chief officer of a car-carrying ship told CNN Business.

That was more than 18 months ago. Marchal — and hundreds of thousands of seafarers like her — have not been permitted shore leave since.

After weeks on board a ship, a associate of hours on shore provides much needed respite. But seafarers can only leave a canal in order to travel in other places, usually to return home. Marchal considers herself “one of the luckier ones,” because she has at the minimum been able to make it home to the United States.

“There are people who have been stuck at sea for over a year,” she said.

Karynn Marchal, chief officer, pictured on board her vessel in January 2021 in the Panama Canal.

Early in the pandemic, many seafarers agreed to extend their contracts by several months to keep supplies of food, fuel, medicine and other consumer goods flowing around the world. The grounding of planes and border closures had made it almost impossible to move workers from one part of the world to another and to swap crews.

At the peak of the crisis in 2020, 400,000 seafarers were unable to leave their ships for routine changeovers, some working for as long as 18 months beyond the end of their initial contracts, according to the ICS.

Multiple vaccinations, repeated testing

While these numbers have improved, crew changes keep a major challenge. Some travel restrictions were reimposed as a consequence of the coronavirus Delta variant and transport workers continue to confront a myriad of vaccine and testing requirements just to do their jobs. Often these are imposed at a moment’s notice, said Platten.

Inconsistent requirements average that some seafarers have been vaccinated multiple times because some countries have approved only certain vaccines, according to Platten.

He knows of at the minimum one seafarer who has received six vaccine doses, or three two-measure regimens. “It’s an absolute nightmare. I can’t understand why we don’t have some sort of global standard,” he told CNN Business.

Meanwhile, the unequal dispensing of vaccines globally method that only about 25% to 30% of seafarers, many of who are from India and the Philippines, are fully vaccinated, according to Platten.

Trucks parked on the runway at Manston Airport in England waiting to cross the English Channel on December 22, 2020.

Coronavirus testing is also a challenge. In February, Germany unilaterally introduced mandatory PCR testing with no exemption for truck drivers, leading nearby countries including Italy to impose similar restrictions to avoid having thousands of drivers stranded in their own territory.

These measures affected thousands of truck drivers, particularly on the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria, forcing them to queue for days in sub-zero temperatures with no food or medical facilities. The EU Digital Covid Certificate has since eased some of the pressure, but bottlenecks keep.

“Drivers have faced hundreds of border issues and blockades by the pandemic,” said Umberto de Pretto, IRU secretary general. “Truck drivers, and the citizens and businesses that depend on the goods they move, pay a heavy price for misguided Covid restrictions that do not exempt transport workers,” he additional.

Truck drivers line up to show testing documentation on the Brenner Pass on February 16.

Marchal, the chief officer, and her crew had to do 10 Covid tests in seven days before they were allowed to go into the shipyard in Singapore for repairs last month. Maintenance was delayed by a week following a coronavirus sudden increase at the port and the canal is not expected to leave before mid October. In the meantime, the crew must keep on board the ship.

Compulsory quarantines when disembarking and on arrival in their home countries can average that pilots and seafarers use a month of their vacation time stuck in a hotel room before they’re able to see their families.

Seafarers “run the shipping industry,” however they have not been given the priority of frontline workers, said Shaailesh Sukte, the captain of Seaspan Amazon, a container ship. “If you want the world to [keep] moving, you need to relax travel restrictions,” he told CNN Business.

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