A looming crisis in global transport suggests that the aftershocks of coronavirus are only just starting to be felt.
Some 1.6 million seafarers are employed worldwide. Seafarers typically remain on board for several months, though international rules prohibit their remaining at sea for more than a year without leave. Before the world went into lockdown, employers were obliged to fly seafarers home at the end of their contract, with around 100,000 workers repatriated this way every month. But due to coronavirus travel restrictions, this has become increasingly difficult.
China has both enough seafarers and enough political power to force crew transfers for the mainly-Chinese seafarers aboard Chinese-flagged ships. But the majority of seafarers are Filipino, Indian or Indonesian, and these governments haven’t been willing (or perhaps able) to flex enough muscle to support their seafarers.
For example, as of yesterday 47 mainly Indian seafarers from the passenger vessel Astoria were on hunger strike at Tilbury docks, after weeks of pleas to their employer for back pay and repatriation produced no results. The International Transport Workers’ Federation has now advised the estimated 200,000 seafarers currently stranded around the world to disembark when their contract ends and the union will try to repatriate them — or else to remain on board but refuse to work.
This matters, because commercial vessels must obey international rules governing minimum crew numbers for safe sailing. Many vessels follow regular routes, like buses. A vessel missing its slot or blocking a berth in one port when it should be somewhere else will have knock-on effects around the world, potentially causing far-reaching disruptions to supply chains.
That means global supply chains may not, after all, be about to return to normal after a brief blip. This isn’t just a case of a few missing shipments of flat-screen televisions: the UK imports nearly half its food, and nearly all of that arrives not by plane but by ship. If a ‘no deal’ Brexit impedes EU food imports at the same time as a global disruption in shipping hampers Britain’s ability to import from elsewhere in the world, the result could make the brief coronavirus-induced toilet roll shortage look like Supermarket Sweep.
We have to hope that a resolution can be found that enables global shipping to continue. But the situation highlights the pervasive tension between the borderless dream of global trade and the turn back toward national sovereignty prompted by coronavirus. It should raise questions both for those free-trade evangelists who continue to place their faith in a new ‘Global Britain’, and also those now advocating the return of the nation-state. The latter (and those environmentalists keen to see less global trade) must bear in mind that de-globalisation will not be free of human costs, whether in the form of stranded workers or — potentially — empty shelves.