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Rescued at sea: how we can do more for essential workers as the pandemic persists

Reverend Stephen Miller of the Mission to Seafarers gestures at a sailor pulling up a bag on a bulk carrier, during a trip to deliver supplies to those stranded on visiting cargo vessels due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Hong Kong, China March 22, 2021. Picture taken March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Lam Yik - RC2PKM91E4B6

Reverend Stephen Miller gestures during a trip to deliver supplies to those stranded on visiting cargo vessels due to COVID-19, in Hong Kong, China March 22, 2021. Image: Lam Yik/REUTERS

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • COVID-19 is exacting a heavy toll on essential workers around the world.
  • Seafarers, garment workers and miners have been disproportionately impacted.
  • A number of efforts are underway to come to their aid during the crisis.

When the container ship Ever Given was finally dislodged from the Suez Canal in March, media attention moved elsewhere. The ship’s crew did not.

While a handful of its Indian seafarers were allowed to leave, most have had to stay on board as the vessel floats idly in the Great Bitter Lake due to a legal dispute – adding to the ranks of those stranded amid a pandemic.

Sailors have born the brunt of plagues for centuries, and COVID-19 is proving to be no different. Crewing “death ships” in the Middle Ages, for example, meant being trapped in close quarters with the rats and fleas spreading bubonic plague.

Protecting seafarers

Now, many of the seafarers needed to deliver everything from the salt on tables to the soap in showers are once again suffering. An estimated 200,000 remain stranded at sea beyond the length of their contracts because of COVID-19 restrictions (down from about 400,000 last year), and several have reportedly jumped overboard due to the severe mental strain. The recent worsening of the pandemic in India, home to a large portion of the world’s seafarers, has prevented many from finding work at all – and has further extended the tenures of those already on board.

The situation has been deemed an “ongoing humanitarian crisis,” and is just one example of the ways essential workers require greater protections amid an ongoing disaster.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to come to seafarers’ aid. About 60% of them come from countries that haven't yet been able to make COVID-19 vaccines widely available, so more than a dozen US states have started vaccination programs for foreign-national crews delivering goods. Some private companies have also begun sourcing vaccines for seafarers, and the SG-STAR Fund, a joint effort between the government of Singapore, the shipping industry and seafarer unions, has won praise for facilitating safe crew changes.

Work is also underway to address the problem of seafarer abandonment – which results in gut-wrenching stories like that of Mohammad Aisha, a Syrian seafarer whose four-year stint on an abandoned cargo ship was widely chronicled when it mercifully came to an end last month.

The number of seafarer abandonment cases spiked last year.

Image: World Economic Forum

Protecting garment workers

Seafarers are not the only essential workers suffering disproportionately from the impacts of the pandemic. Garment workers, for example, have been hit particularly hard.

Tens of thousands of garment workers who lost their jobs amid the COVID-19-related economic slowdown have reportedly been wrongfully denied terminal compensation, and according to a report published by a advocacy group last year the pandemic led to a brutal crackdown on garment workers’ rights.

Even before the pandemic, this workforce faced significant challenges. An estimated three-quarters of all garment workers are women, and the same portion is based in Asia, where their jobs pay as little as $66 per month. Many are informally employed, making them particularly vulnerable to market fluctuations like the steep decline last year in Bangladesh’s apparel exports – the mainstay of its economy.

Here, too, efforts are underway to help. In Laos, garment workers losing jobs have received cash transfers, and countries in the European Union – the biggest market for Bangladeshi-made clothing – have funded COVID-19-related aid programs for impacted garment workers there.

Have you read?

Protecting miners

Miners have also suffered. Many continue to work in close quarters despite social distancing guidelines, and rising gold prices during the pandemic have fueled more illegal mining – which exposes workers to more dangerous conditions.

In addition, sharp declines in household income in many parts of the world have increased the risk of children being forced to work in mines.

Efforts to better protect miners have included stronger federal COVID-19 safety guidance for mines in the US, and an offer from mining firms in South Africa to assist the rollout of vaccines – in a country where mineworkers are next in line to receive jabs after healthcare workers.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • This is what your brain looks like at sea – seafarers endure such unique conditions (like narrow spaces and extended isolation) that this study generated a visual map of ways the profession impacts brain function. (Frontiers)
  • In February, five crew members on a tanker abandoned for 43 months agreed to a $165,000 pay out in owed wages, according to this report – though only half was made available, with the rest contingent on the sale of the vessel. (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre)
  • The garment industry needs more women leaders. According to this analysis, that would change the exploitative work culture of factories and promote gender equality in the workplace. (India Development Review)
  • There’s been a shortage of junior seafarers in China recently, according to this journal article, which suggests that greater mutual trust and respect between global shipping companies and seafarers could help address the issue. (SpringerOpen)
  • The UK press was captivated by the suspected hijacking of an oil tanker near the Isle of Wight last year, but little attention was paid to the seafarers onboard who were held hostage in a crowded, window-less room for 10 hours, according to this analysis. (The Conversation)
  • This piece argues that some of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in the US in March should be used to provide federal hazard pay for frontline essential workers including first responders, public sector workers and corrections staff. (Brookings)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Work, the Future of Economic Progress and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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