EMPLOYERS and unions alike say the impact of COVID restrictions on hundreds of thousands of ships' crews "trapped at sea" is a humanitarian crisis of the highest order.
Representative bodies including Shipping Australia, Ports Australia, the Freight & Trade Alliance and the union-aligned International Transport Federation are all adamant that seafarers are the pandemic's unrecognised victims, with governments everywhere reluctant to confront the problem.
They say that about 400,000 seafarers on some 20,000 vessels have been at sea for a year or more without a break, unable to leave their ships even when they tie up in port.
This represents almost half of the world's shipping fleet of 50,000 vessels, and the numbers are growing all the time.
Concerns were raised in the Hunter in August when a ship bringing alumina to Tomago Aluminium, the Unison Jasper, was detained by federal authorities over a range of breaches including unpaid wages.
The CEOs of 31 global corporations wrote recently to United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, urging a coordinated series of measures to help seafarers and to "unblock" a "major disruption of global supply chains", including the classification of ships' crews as "key workers" providing an essential service. Those trapped on board were undergoing "forced labour".
Mike Gallacher, the former NSW Liberal MP now CEO of Ports Australia, said yesterday that "we can't keep patting ourselves on the back, saying everything is being delivered", and not discuss the human cost.
Freight & Trade Alliance director Paul Zalai said the massive reductions in air travel meant cargo normally carried on passenger planes was going by sea, adding to the strain.
Mr Zalai said airlines were charging "five or six times" their normal rates for cargo, and he congratulated the federal government for its "International Freight Assistance Mechanism" or IFAM, which was subsidising air freight costs and received another $317 million in the budget.
He said the cost of sea freight had also risen substantially, and shippers had responded to delays at Port Botany by introducing "surcharges" of about $300 a standard container, meaning ships were being diverted to Brisbane and Melbourne and the cargo trucked back.
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