As the novel coronavirus marches on, the global shipping community is hailing seafarers as the “Unsung Heroes of Global Trade”. The slogan sounds nice but hollow. In fact, it is downright disingenuous.
How can the words ring true when thousands of seafarers have been stranded in foreign ports and harbours because of COVID-19? That the problem exists on such a scale shows how the maritime world really regards the men and women who toil at sea: they are commodities.
Some likely scenarios
The commodification of seafarers will not end after the pandemic has blown over. Anyone who thinks otherwise is hopelessly naive. Violations of seafarers’ rights, which had been rife long before COVID-19, could very well increase. The following scenerios in the short term are not hard to imagine, especially in poorer countries:
> The slump in shipping markets will lead to a scramble for shipboard jobs, fuelling corruption and such malpractices as the illegal exaction of fees from applicants.
> Cases of crew abandonment will increase rather than decline as more shipping operators face financial difficulties.
> As crew deployment dips, more manning agents will be tempted to steal from the dollar remittances of seafarers.
> Cutthroat competition amongst training centres will increase because of dwindling enrolments.
> Seafarers claiming for sickness or disability benefits will face more stonewalling from shipowners and their crewing agents.
For all the damage it has wrought, the pandemic has served as fertile ground for many acts of kindness, generosity and even heroism, It may, in the end, help humanise communities. One can only pray that it will have the same effect on those who deal with seafarers.