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Some crews are reportedly downing tools in exasperation

Global food supplies to the UK may soon be under threat unless governments begin to recognise seafarers as key workers, food and logistics figures have warned.

The vast majority of food shipped to the UK from outside Europe arrives by sea. However, port restrictions in some regions have left seafarers unable to dock. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) recently estimated that 250,000 seafarers remain stuck on ships, risking both their mental and physical health.

Some crews have reportedly downed tools to protest against the situation, and there are concerns others may soon follow suit.

Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS, said the issue was a “ticking time bomb”.

“The system is at full stretch and governments across the world need to recognise this emerging risk. They need to designate seafarers as key workers and facilitate crew change before it’s too late.”

The shipping industry has lobbied governments around the world, but many industry figures are exasperated by their continued failure to act, according to Graham Westgarth, VP of the UK Chamber of Shipping and CEO of ship management company V.Group.

“There have already been reports of crews downing tools in exasperation. If others follow suit then the issues we are currently facing will seem small in comparison. It really is a desperate situation, a ticking time bomb.

“Many of those on board haven’t stepped off their vessel for well over a year. Just consider that for a moment. This isn’t just an economic crisis, it’s a humanitarian one and it has the potential to get much worse,” he said.

Stephen Cotton, general secretary at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, confirmed workers may soon be forced to take matters into their own hands.

“Seafarers will reach for drastic action to end their floating misery and get back to their families. More ships being stopped, more risk of accidents with tired and fatigued crew, more detentions and Maritime Labour Convention breaches means more disruption to critical supply chains.”

While lorry drivers across Europe were recognised as key workers during the peak of the crisis to help keep goods flowing, it was now vital governments around the world extended this status to seafarers, said Ian Wright, CEO of the FDF.

“It seems illogical that lorry drivers have been acknowledged since the start of the crisis as key workers and entitled to travel across borders. Yet seafarers – playing the same role at sea – are not afforded the same status,” he said.

Bob Sanguinetti, CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, called seafarers the “unsung heroes of global trade” during the pandemic, ensuring the UK had been supplied with enough food, medicines and essential goods.

“But this has come at a cost…The time for talking is over, we need action now from governments to allow crew changes to take place.”