How has going under the radar for the shipping industry backfired today?

The shipping industry is faced with one of the greatest humanitarian crises in years, affecting over half a million people.

Six months into the pandemic 300,000 seafarers are stuck at sea, some of them for 17 months, 6 months longer than allowed under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). Around 300,000 more seafarers are pending to sign onto ships, and start earning their salaries.

Fatigue,  physical and mental strain seafarers are faced with are jeopardizing their ability to perform their work, and rightly so, posing a danger to them, the ships, the marine environment, and global supply chains.

Clearly, the situation is not sustainable and immediate action is required.

On the positive note, the situation has led to an unprecedented level of cooperation within the industry, in particular among industry associations like IMO, ICS, ILO, and the ITF who have joined forces in raising awareness about the crisis and developing solutions and protocols to alleviate the crisis.

The UK Government even hosted a ministerial meeting to push the immediacy of the issue.

Thirteen countries committed to facilitating crew changes and achieving key worker designation for seafarers, following the summit, including Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), UK, and the United States. 

Unfortunately, the industry has had little success in resolving the situation as the international community failed to take decisive action and allow seafarers to be exempt from national travel restrictions designating them essential workers.

Apart from several exemptions, there hasn’t been much willingness to act on the matter.

The desperately needed political reaction is still missing.

So, how is it possible that an industry which proudly states that it is responsible for moving 90% of the global trade has ended up in a situation where its workforce is stranded on the very ships that have kept goods moving during a global pandemic?

For one, the complexity of the crisis has diminished the potential of resolving the issue.

“The international community has done a very bad job in responding to this global crisis and there hasn’t been an adequate global response, notwithstanding the efforts of different parts of the international system, including the ILO. What we have seen is an accumulation of national responses,“  Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Office (ILO) said in a recent webinar hosted by the ICS.

Ryder believes one of the explanations for such a response, or lack thereof, is the rise of geopolitical tensions around the globe which basically quashed the appetite for global cooperation.

These tensions have led to a rise in protectionism, and in the case of a global pandemic, the majority of countries resorted to an ‘every man (country) for himself’ strategy as they shut their borders.

ILO Director-General further explained that the crisis has shown that the expected benevolent attitude of national governments to their international obligations is often non-existent, especially in cases where those governments have no national interest in meeting the obligations in question.

The very complexity of the crisis, where key considerations to be made involve health and protection of national populations have made it very easy for certain governments to turn the blind eye to the plight of seafarers, especially if they are not major labor suppliers in the sector.

However, the likely impact of shipping grinding to a halt on a global scale could easily have a ripple effect on countries and their economies across the board.

One of the most pressing arguments for the inaction of governments also seems to be the fact that shipping is an industry that preferred staying in the shadows for such a long period of time, that it doesn’t have the mechanisms or alliances strong enough to achieve results.

Hugo de Stoop, Euronav’s CEO, explained that being under the radar as a rather private industry is at the heart of the ongoing problem, hampering the industry’s plight for faster action.

De Stoop believes the way the industry has been built is a major issue, as it promoted the notion of living in the shadows, being discrete and forgotten.

“The reasons behind that are that nobody wanted to pay tax, nobody wanted to be heavily regulated so, for most, the players in the sector have chosen tiny, discrete, less influential and certainly tax-friendly places for their incorporation,” he added.

Shipowners, particularly in the container shipping sector, are known for their preference to register in countries known as tax havens and have been criticized for that on numerous occasions as such countries often have very little say with regard to enforcing international conventions and promoting higher industry standards.

According to a 2017 study from Seaintel Maritime Analysis, “there has essentially been a constant shift towards tax havens throughout the entire period from 1980 to 2017, from 12% of tonnage flagged in tax havens in 1980, to 74% in 2017, the majority of which were registered in Liberia and Panama.”

“Going forward, this is not a good solution, because if you think about Panama, the Marshall Islands, or the Bahamas you have to think about what sort of influence they have when we are facing a worldwide problem,” De Stoop said, “which is nothing, zilch“, he added.

As explained by Euronav’s CEO, tax haven countries often lack the economical power to make their voices heard at important organizations and exert pressure or influence the decision-makers to move to action.

“That is something that needs to be changed, and I believe that it can be gradually changed,” he said.

“There are a lot of private companies in the shipping world that don’t want to be in the spotlight. The result of that is that when people hear about shipping they only hear about the bad things: oil spills, sinkings, and accidents. If you want to correct this perception you need to come forward and be willing to talk about the industry much more than we have done in the past.

“It has to be our decision to talk about the industry and not being forced to talk about it because there is an event that needs to be addressed, which is usually bad,” he concluded.

Lack of appreciation for the seafarers and their work has been frustrating, to say the least.

Despite the incessant calls from the industry, it appears that the good guys end up paying the price as it has been the case with the Maersk Etienne’s crew.

The tanker has spent over one month stranded at sea after rescuing migrants from Tunisian waters, pending a solution from port authorities for the disembarkation of the affected people.

As Guy Platten, ICS Secretary-General, says, the battle for a solution continues.

Whether seafarers across the world will have to down their tools to finally be heard, or whether a new alliance of industry powers or ports states will have to be created to get the message across is yet to be seen.

One thing is certain, the sector needs to turn up the heat.

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