The shipping industry faces a growing crisis

| Sep 23, 2020 | Maritime Law |

There is a growing crisis at sea. It has persisted for months and has only gotten worse over that time.

As Bloomberg recently reported, there are roughly 300,000 seafarers currently stranded at sea. Many of them have served well beyond the terms of their contracts, often for 14 months or more, without the opportunity to return home. And their stories illustrate many of the difficulties associated with maritime law.

A largely invisible injustice

The ongoing worldwide health crisis has touched and strained nearly every industry. But its impact on the world’s seafarers has been absolutely profound. Bloomberg identified more than 120 nations that had closed their borders to these sailors. Many have enforced new restrictions on crew changes. Some have simply banned crew changes altogether. The result is that the seafarers responsible for global shipping—and, indeed, global trade—have suffered tremendous and illegal hardship.

It’s likely their plight would attract more attention if they hailed from the United States or other more affluent nations. But most of them come from poorer parts of the world, such as Myanmar. Accordingly, the nations with the most powerful media organizations tend to overlook them.

This does not make their plight any less awful, nor any less illegal. Bloomberg noted some of the seafarer’s grievances, including:

  • Missed payments
  • Overtime violations, including the failure to track overtime at all
  • The denial of shore leave
  • Inadequate health care
  • Contract lapses and breaches
  • Safety concerns due to mounting fatigue

While all the seafarers’ problems deserve attention, the last one merits further discussion at this time. Despite all the technologies modern ships now employ, humans remain central to shipboard safety. Human errors reportedly account for roughly three-quarters of all shipping accidents and fatality. And there’s little doubt that over-tired, mistreated crew are more likely to make mistakes than if they were well-rested and treated fairly.

Maybe not someone else’s problem

One of the trickiest parts of this problem is that it’s often hard to hold anyone accountable. There are longstanding international laws for maritime trade, and these laws are supposed to protect the seafarers. However, it’s often difficult to determine which court or country holds jurisdiction. And this is largely because it’s often difficult to know which owner, operator, contractor or subcontractor to hold responsible.

As Bloomberg notes, the shipping industry is huge, and many companies, including American companies, have some stakes in it. Yet the companies with the most money invested often sit farthest from any accountability. For example, Bloomberg explored the case of one ship’s stranded crew:

  • The ship’s owner registered in Hong Kong
  • The operator registered in Taiwan
  • A Danish company chartered the ship
  • Another sub-charter from Hong Kong paid to transport the ship’s goods

The sub-charterer said they knew nothing about the crew’s plight. The charterer said they found the situation deplorable and had contacted the owner. The owner and operator offered no comment to Bloomberg’s reporters but would almost certainly point their fingers elsewhere. And, meanwhile, the crew continued to suffer.

Shipping crews are essential, not expendable

We’ve all heard a lot about “essential workers” over the past several months. The seafarers who power global commerce count as essential. Without their efforts, the global trade that serves as a hallmark of modern society would quickly break down.

The problem is that these essential workers haven’t been treated as though they’re essential. They’ve been largely abandoned by the companies that hire them—and that are legally obligated to care for them. They’ve been stuck at sea, suffering. They’ve been treated as though they’re expendable.