A new threat to global trade: Exhausted crews want off cargo ships now

Global trade is facing another coronavirus crisis just as economies begin to reopen: 200,000 seafarers stranded for months by port closures and the collapse in long-haul aviation could refuse to keep working.

Many seafarers extended their contracts by several months to keep supplies of food, fuel and medicine flowing around the world during the pandemic, according to shipping companies and labor unions. But the months at sea without a break are taking their toll on crews. Fatigue and mental illness is a growing threat to safety and many seafarers now want off their ships.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents about half the world’s seafarers, said emergency extensions to contracts expired on Tuesday and the organization will now do everything it can to help crew exercise their legal rights to stop working and return home. If enough of the highly skilled seafarers take action, the move could cause slumping global trade to grind to a halt, according to the Federation, snarling supply chains.

About 80% of world goods trade by volume is carried on ships, according to the United Nations World Conference on Trade and Development. The pandemic has thrown the shipping industry into chaos. Access to ports has been restricted and airplanes grounded, making it impossible to move workers from one part of the world to another and to swap crews.

Shipping companies and unions agreed to suspend crew changes in March to minimize disruption to cargo. But this was intended to be a short-term solution.