Unilever, consumer giants push suppliers to rescue seafarers

‘There’s a huge risk that the global supply chain will start failing. It’s an inadvertent situation of forced labour’

LONDON • Unilever plc and Procter & Gamble Co Ltd are among consumer companies urging world leaders to resolve the plight of more than 300,000 seafarers stuck on commercial vessels, where forced labour and deteriorating working conditions threaten to disrupt the global supply chain.

CEOs of household consumer brands, from retailer Carrefour SA to food manufacturer Mondelez International Inc and beverage maker Heineken NV, have signed an open letter calling for measures to allow more crew changes at ports, ensure the safety of overworked seafarers and make sure supply chains don’t use forced labour.

Sent on Wednesday to United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, the companies’ letter is the latest call to address a growing humanitarian crisis at sea brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic as cautious governments restrict access to borders and air travel remains curbed.

An earlier Bloomberg investigation found numerous violations of international maritime law designed to protect seafarers, including wage and labour problems highlighted by interviews with more than 40 crew members globally.

“We are coming to a tipping point if we don’t resolve the issue of crew changes,” Marc Engel, chief supply chain officer at Unilever, which spearheaded the letter, said in an interview. “There’s a huge risk that the global supply chain will start failing. It’s an inadvertent situation of forced labour because these seafarers are stuck on these ships. It’s a human rights issue.”

Guterres addressed the crisis yesterday, asking governments to designate seafarers as “key workers” to ease their travels at borders and ports. More than eight months since the pandemic unfolded, the backlog of crew swaps threatens to get worse.

Over 120 countries or territories have stopped or limited access for ships to conduct seafarer changes in a bid to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that’s killed almost one million across the globe.

“This has led to a major disruption of global supply chains, which are vital to manufacturers and retailers and their ability to produce and offer essential consumer goods, including food and hygiene products,” the CEOs said in the letter, which is the most coordinated and public effort yet by business titans to draw attention to labour crisis in shipping.

To ensure the supply of critical goods and protect seafarers’ human rights, the CEOs are calling for measures that include:

  • Introducing a robust test and trace regime to ensure the safety of seafarers and crew changes.
  • Limiting any unavoidable crew contract extensions to the next scheduled port where crew change is possible and/or diverting course to a port where crew changes can be arranged within the International Labour Organisation’s guidelines.
  • Signatories communicating the request for the measures to their shippers, logistics providers and suppliers, and the Consumer Goods Forum will encourage all stakeholders to abide by labour principles.

In Bloomberg interviews with more than 40 seafarers on as many ships, half said they didn’t have current contracts, and some said they hadn’t been paid in more than two months. Engel said violations of overtime and non-payment of wages are particularly concerning since they are basic protections that aren’t affected by pandemic restrictions. — Bloomberg