The Covid-19 pandemic was tough on seafarers.
When the globe went into lockdown in March 2020, the men and women who work aboard commercial ships bore the brunt, with hundreds of thousands working long beyond contractual terms and safety limits, while others were prevented from getting on board and earning a salary.
The situation was dire, and has many concerned a labour shortage could be on the way.
But what if the Covid-19 pandemic could turn out to be a good thing for seafarers?
“I think shipping is going to get a lot, lot better for the interests of your average seafarer,” said Mark O’Neil, chief executive at Columbia Shipmanagement and InterManager president.
O’Neil said the pandemic, which at its worst had 400,000 seafarers overdue for a crew change, forced responsible ship managers to provide their crews with new benefits. Add the bargaining position labour now has for higher wages and he paints a rosy picture for mariners moving forward.
“Everybody keeps going on about how seafarers will be deterred because of [the pandemic and crew change crisis] and I think that’s too simplistic a proposition,” O’Neil said. “It’s much more complex than that.
“The career they’ve chosen will get even more exciting, more dynamic, more optimised and more financially rewarding moving forward.”
Earlier this year, figures in the shipping industry began warning that Covid-19 was driving seafarers out of the industry.
Executives, government officials and seafarer ministry figures have said the crew change crisis has brought issues such as dwindling shore leave and mental health issues to the fore.
They said that in some cases the industry is already seeing the impacts of seafarers leaving shipping for other opportunities.
Allan Falkenberg, V.Group chief executive of crew management and offshore, said that in some cases seafarers spent two weeks in quarantine in their home countries — without pay — before travelling for a possible crew change that ends up not happening.
He said sometimes rules changed while seafarers were in transit or positive Covid-19 tests — or even false positives from less accurate tests — have prevented crew changes from happening.
“It’s just been a nightmare,” he said of the last 20 months. “I don’t think you can find a single seafarer that finds any benefit in this situation.”
Falkenberg said that the industry has recognised the work seafarers have done, but that gratitude has not necessarily meant monetary rewards nor has it meant the average person understands the critical role they played during the worst of the pandemic.
“While we all appreciated their service, we have not rewarded them for it,” he said.
“We have not managed to put the seafarers in the same category [as other essential workers] and that’s a shame.”
Shipping makes a good case
O’Neil did not suggest that life at sea has not changed and that there were no drawbacks to life at sea.
He conceded that seafarers had less shore leave and that there was less interaction with shipmates as crew members spent more of their downtime online, impacting camaraderie.
“The feedback we’re getting from our seafarers is that this is an incredibly challenging, frustrating, frightening and annoying time and there’s no getting away from that,” he said.
“But I think, also, from a positive angle, it’s a time where the invisibility of seafarers as a concept has disappeared. We are now seeing our seafarers much more, we’re identifying them, we’re communicating with them, we’re caring for them in ways that, wrongly perhaps, didn’t occur across the board before Covid.”
Both O’Neil and Falkenberg said their companies had added services for seafarers, including mental health care, internet improvements and better food. V.Group added more telephone time, while Columbia launched an online training platform.
O’Neil said some of those initiatives had started before Covid-19, as the company began making a more concentrated effort around crew care two years before the pandemic began.
He said that when you couple those new benefits with increasing diversity and the ability to work with new technology, working aboard ships should remain an attractive career path.
“If I was a young man or young woman coming to sea, I’d say, ‘Geez, all of the sudden we’re seen, we’re recognized, we’re at the cutting edge of digitalisation, optimisation, we have a career with all sorts of financial and technical options’,” O’Neil said.
“I think the intelligent seafarer, and that’s the majority of them, will see the challenges brought about by Covid as a medium-term to long-term advantage and such changes may actually attract more into the career.”