In shipping dispute for commodities, workers left at sea

A standoff between commodities giants and shipping companies is prolonging the labor crisis at sea, with an estimated 200,000 seafarers still stuck on their vessels beyond the expiration of their contracts and past the requirements of globally accepted safety standards.

In an effort to keep deliveries of food, fuel and other raw materials on schedule, some of the big commodities firms are avoiding hiring certain vessels or are imposing conditions that may block relief for exhausted seafarers.

The companies are trying to steer clear of crew changes, which have become far more expensive and time-consuming during the coronavirus outbreak. In an effort to keep shipments on schedule, some firms have asked their shipping partners to guarantee that that no change will take place, according to emails and contracts reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Those requirements risk worsening a labor crisis already in its 12th month, according to ship owners, labor unions and the United Nations. More than a year into the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of mariners are long overdue for shore leave. Some have been working without pay or a firm plan for repatriation, and many have taken desperate measures: In one instance, a captain diverted his ship to the middle of the ocean and refused to return to course without a guarantee of relief.

Before the pandemic, a ship owner could bring in a new crew during routine port stops. That common practice has become a logistical nightmare with covid-19 border restrictions. Some ports require lengthy quarantines for incoming and outgoing workers, and others turn away vessels that have changed crews within 10 to 14 days over fears that seafarers could spread the virus.

In January, about 300 companies — including Vitol Group, the world’s biggest independent oil trader, and Australian mining behemoth Rio Tinto Group — signed a pledge called “the Neptune Declaration” to take action to resolve the crisis for seafarers. Signatories recognized a “shared responsibility” and promised increased collaboration between ship operators and charterers to facilitate crew changes.

But some ship owners and labor advocates say little has changed, and not all of the biggest charterers signed on.

“We chose not to sign because we believe that our current practices in respect of crew changes are fair and fully respect the need for regular crew changes,” said a spokesperson for Equinor, a major oil, gas and energy company based in Stavanger, Norway. “We do not charter vessels for any voyage if a crew change will be required that cannot be accommodated in our delivery schedule.”

Exxon Mobil, the largest U.S. oil and gas producer, has also declined to sign. A spokesperson said the company is “considering next steps.”