New report from ITF argues that governments are obliged to learn pandemic supply chain lessons

March 30, 2023
ITF Cabotage report 2023 Webcover image 2 copy

Governments should learn lessons from the pandemic and its aftermath to secure reliable maritime supply chains for their citizens and the climate, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has argued in a new report.

In Opportunities for Seafarers and National Maritime Policies: Navigating beyond the chaos of the pandemic, industry experts identify crucial lessons coming out of the COVID-19 crises, proposing sensible ways for governments to secure supply chains.

Chris Given, Secretary–Treasurer of the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (SIU Canada) and one of the report’s authors, said:

'During the pandemic, in many countries consumers and businesses experienced shortages, including of critical goods like medicines and fuel supplies. But what we see is that in other countries, specifically those with robust national maritime policies, governments were able to harness well-laid policy levers to get their people fed, fuelled and on a quicker path back to economic and health recovery.'

Why some countries proved resilient

Throughout the pandemic, much of the world’s shipping containers were scattered, dislocated far from where they were needed. Record-high shipping prices and intractable port congestion then resulted, which quickly led to mass shortages of finished goods and left consumers at the mercy of overstretched supply chains.

At the same time, up to 400,000 seafarers were trapped aboard vessels due to pandemic restrictions landside, unable to return home and be relieved by fresh crew. Tired and weary, some seafarers were stuck on board for more than a year at the crew change crisis’ peak.

Given said:

'Amidst the chaos, some countries were able to use national flag fleets to shift critical cargo and get supply chains moving again. We have to remember that these are supply chains that remained logjammed elsewhere. In writing this report we asked "Why?", "What was different about some countries that saw them come through faster and stronger, while others were very negatively exposed by these crises?"'

Governments can avoid extreme, unnecessary risk

The report also records the lessons learned the hard way, by governments which struggled to navigate the turbulent waters of the crises due to poor planning and policy.

The lack of a strategic fleet in Australia meant that its federal government could only look on as the country’s businesses and consumers became hostage to an incredibly volatile global market for shipping services. Firms, households and the public sector were at mercy of the markets and their record-high prices, even for cargo critical to the nation’s economic or physical health.

David Heindel, ITF Seafarers’ Section Chair and President of the Seafarers International Union of North America (SIU), said:

'COVID-19 and the supply chain shocks which followed laid bare just how fragile our global supply chains are. Sensible national maritime policies are an important insurance to safeguard a country’s economic, health, security, and environmental interests. After what the world has been through, what kind of government wouldn’t want that insurance for their people? In the absence of sensible national maritime policies, governments put their economies and their communities at extreme – and unnecessary – risk. There is another way.'

ITF Cabotage Task Force members met in Washington, D.C. last week, where they endorsed a new report identifying lessons for governments from the pandemic on securing maritime supply chains. © ITF, 2023

Planning for a better future

Heindel said some countries were already showing they’d taken note of the pitfalls of an unprepared national maritime sector. The report highlights recent moves by Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, South Africa, the UK and the USA, to strengthen support for cabotage and other sensible national maritime policies in their domestic legislation and planning. He said:

'The standout performance of our domestic shipping sectors, not only in the US, but elsewhere too, throughout these crises, shows that when you invest in your people, your plant and your industry – you are better prepared to provide for your citizens come what may in the global headwinds. Ours is a success story. But there is more we can do, with more governments supporting our critical sector all over the world.'

ITF Maritime Coordinator Jacqueline Smith agreed:

'If the world is to step up to the collective challenge of cutting carbon emissions to a safe level, then shipping needs to do our part. We can’t do that, however, if there aren’t seafarers coming through with the right skills to handle the fuels and ships of the future.'

'Now is the time for governments to invest in a secure future by putting in place sensible national maritime policies. They should do this not only for people, but also for planet.'

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