seafarer on deck

Photo: Ievgen Postovyk/Shutterstock

It’s Time to Stop Taking Shipping and Seafarers for Granted

Mike Schuler
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September 30, 2021

Today, and every September 30th, is World Maritime Day, a United Nation’s day of observance to recognize the maritime industry’s contribution to the global economy. You probably don’t care, but you should. Especially this year.

As the old saying goes, approximately 90% of global trade is carried on ships. It’s almost hard to wrap your head around. Globally, there are more than 1.6 million seafarers who man the 50,000-some-odd internationally trading merchant ships which transport everything from medical supplies and PPE, to the consumer goods your daily lives depend on, to the cars (and fuel) you drive, to the raw materials used to build and sustain modern society.

At this point, I’m sure you’ve heard of the unprecedented supply chain chaos in places like Southern California where there is a record logjam of ships. Remember when the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal and halted roughly 12 percent global trade, costing however many billions of dollars per day? That was the most high-profile maritime event perhaps ever and it’s not even a blip on the radar at this point. Our current problems can’t be minimized to a single ship, or incident, or port, or weather event. It’s much, much bigger.

Just yesterday, trade groups representing $20 TRILLION of annual world trade, 65 million global transport workers, more than 3.5 million road freight and airline companies, and over 80% of the world merchant shipping fleet warned that the global transport systems are on the verge of collapse. If that doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, I don’t know what will.

Maersk, the world’s top shipping line, has warned repeatedly that port congestion, equipment shortages, and labor restrictions (heck, even weather disruptions), are all contributing to drive supply chain chaos (and record freight rates) that will undoubtedly last through the end of the year. Truth is, there’s literally no end in sight to the chaos. You know that “just-in-time” supply chain principle that just about every business school has taught since the 70’s? Maersk said this summer that that may no longer be sustainable. Talk about a shift!

But let’s back up. This all started with the COVID-19 pandemic. When factories in Asia shut down and a large part of the workforce went work-from-home, it created a perfect storm of pent up demand that, once the bubble burst, has snowballed into the situation we’re now finding ourselves in. Now, just about every point in the supply chain is near its breaking point, inflation may not be transitory, and that hot toy your kid was expecting from Santa may not make it down the chimney!

Meanwhile, over the last year and a half, hundreds of thousands of seafarers – an estimated 400,000 at its peak – have been stuck at sea for extended periods of time, some up 18 months, working to ensure that the items that our modern lives depend on are delivered. Those 70+ ships stuck off ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach? Each has a crew of some 25 people, most of whom are making wages that most of you won’t even get out of bed for, let alone leave your families for extended periods of time. But have you ever thanked a seafarer? Probably not, if I were to guess.

That’s why the International Maritime Organization selected “seafarers at the core of shipping’s future” as the theme for this year’s World Maritime Day. For most, seafarers and the role they play in the global economy is out of sight, out of mind. I get it. But my point, and the point of this year’s World Maritime Day, is that they shouldn’t be. That 90% of trade I mentioned earlier is more tangible now than ever before. Let’s treat seafarers as the key and essential workers that they are (I’m looking at you, heads of government). Without ships and seafarers, we may as well be living in the Stone Ages.

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