Crew as collateral damage

Namrata Nadkarni, head of content, SAS, DPC, P&H. Credit: IHS Markit

The politically tense situation between Iran and the governments of the United Kingdom and United States has been steadily escalating over the past few months, with both sides lashing out at the other about perceived wrongdoings. What is particularly unfortunate is that shipping and crew have become the target for political point scoring, with vessel arrests by both Iran and the UK, and the US government threatening non-issue of US visas for crew onboard vessels carrying Iranian oil.

This follows on from Italy taking an increasingly hard stance against allowing vessels that have rescued refugees to dock at its ports. Not only was a Maersk vessel delayed from docking last year because it had made a sea-rescue, but the country recently passed a law penalising vessels that rescue refugees at sea – despite this action being an IMO mandate for vessels as part of the search-and-rescue (SAR) convention that has been in force since 1985. There is growing concern that captains involved in multiple rescues may find themselves arrested by the Italian government to prove a point.

While the two situations described above are ostensibly unconnected, both target crew who have no say in which cargoes they carry, which ports they will call at, or their moral stance on rescuing people in distress at sea. As David Heindel, ITF seafarers section chair, pointed out when commenting on the US visa case, it is common that only the captain of a ship knows where the vessel is bound – and that, too, only a day or so before the voyage.

To penalise crew for choices that they cannot make is unnecessarily harsh and unjust. The ethos of the average seafarer is akin to that described by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem The charge of  the light brigade, “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”. While the analogy leans towards the dramatic, the fact of the matter is that vessel crew – often from Asian countries with less political clout and governmental protection – are trained to just get on with the job and rely on their employers or flag state to manoeuvre around any political hot water.

By targeting seafarers shipping becomes an even more stressful workplace, adding to the ongoing burden of a harsh operating environment, coping with long hours and social isolation, and navigating increasing frequency of difficult weather conditions. Should this trend continue, there will not only be more issues with recruiting talented staff, but there would be the risk of driving more talent back ashore. Needless to say, there would be safety and staffing concerns that will arise over time, and so it is better to nip this in the bud.

Unless shipping companies are willing to give crew a greater say in the countries their vessels call at and allow individual staff members to assess the personal risks of complying with regulation – both unlikely scenarios – it would be in the best interests of all stakeholders in the logistics chain to muster any political muscle they can to ensure that crew do not continue on as collateral damage in governmental spats.