How the Russian invasion added crew shortages to the shipping bustle
Thousands of miles from Ukraine on a tugboat off Australia, second in command Simon Prokopenko was trying to figure out how to get home and fight.
‘I can’t stay away when this sort of thing is happening back home,’ he told the FT on a call in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. .
For the global shipping industry, decisions like this are likely to become a big deal. Together, Ukraine and Russia account for 275,000 of the world’s 1.9 million commercial seafarers, jointly surpassing the Philippines, the largest supplier of maritime workers.
Ukraine alone provides 5.4% of the officers who lead the crews of the more than 74,000 ships in international trade.
Now, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging people to stay home and take up arms, and with sailors like Prokopenko on their way back to the country, shipping leaders are warning of shortages of vital personnel that keep global trade moving.
“They are among the top five [providers of] officers at sea today. The loss of this source overnight will put pressure on the overall crew supply,” said Carl Schou, managing director of Wilhelmsen Ship Management, one of the world’s largest ship managers.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already causing significant supply chain issues. The largest container shipping companies have suspended new bookings to Russia for fear of carrying sanctioned goods, European ports are suffering from congestion caused by customs checks to comply with sanctions and the Black Sea has been classified as a zone of high-risk warfare by the Joint War Committee, an advisory body that guides insurers, hitting exports of grain, iron ore and oil.
Oleg Grygoriuk, president of the Union of Maritime Transport Workers of Ukraine, estimates that 55-60% of the approximately 80,000 Ukrainian sailors are currently on ships, and of those at sea, around 20% want to come back and fight.
The union advises them to stay on board for their own safety and to keep global logistics running.
“If most of the Ukrainian sailors leave, no nationality will be able to occupy their position and it will be catastrophic for world shipping,” he said.
On a coal-laden bulk carrier bound for Turkey, Captain Oleksiy Luchyno is among those considering continuing to work until the end of his contract and then moving his family out of Ukraine before deciding what to do next. However, he does not dare to ask his six Ukrainian colleagues about their plans.
“I try to avoid that question,” he said.
Bjorn Hojgaard, head of Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, another major ship manager, said he had suspended crew changes for some of the 1,000 Ukrainians he employs partly because the men Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 60 are no longer allowed to leave the country. .
For an industry that has struggled with border restrictions for the past two years – at one point during the pandemic, 400,000 seafarers were stranded on land or at sea – and more recently outbreaks of the Omicron coronavirus variant on ships, “This is the next problem the world is facing in the shipping chain,” said Henrik Jensen, managing director of Danica Crewing Specialists, a Hamburg-based company that employs 1,200 Ukrainian workers.
Russia’s growing isolation is also causing problems.
Executives say paying Russian nationals is much more difficult because the country’s access to Swift, the main international payment network, has been severely restricted. At the same time, the cessation of many flights from Russia has made it difficult to transport crews to where they are needed.
The war has also raised questions about corporate responsibilities in an industry that often employs people on a contract basis.
“You have an obligation to bring them home, so what does it look like?” said Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
He said another risk to global supply chains came from dockworkers who could refuse to process Russian goods, sanctioned or not.
The UK has banned Russian-owned, operated, controlled, registered or flagged vessels from entering, but still allows goods from Russia to be unloaded.
But Britain’s Unite union and North America’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which both represent dockworkers, have declared their intention to refuse to unload or load any Russian cargo.
Manish Singh, managing director of Ocean Technologies Group, a company that trains crews, said the challenge was not to replace Ukrainians but to maintain global trade until those sailors were able to work at new. “These [expert] communities take decades to develop,” he said.
People like Prokopenko, whose wife and three children fled Ukraine for Poland, feel they have no choice but to leave the industry for now. “If we don’t, there will be no home and there will be no point in working at sea.”
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