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Guy Platten: The supply-chain crisis is a labor crisis

Governments around the world have failed transport workers. But it’s not too late to help them.

(Jasper Rietman | The New York Times)

From Los Angeles to Felixstowe, England; to Dubai, United Arab Emirates; to Shenzhen, China, the world is witnessing delays and shortages of everything from toys to turkeys. At the root of this crisis is a transport sector that is buckling under the strain of Covid-era conditions. Workers who drive the trucks, fly the planes and crew the ships responsible for moving all these goods — around $19 trillion of world trade annually — have been stretched to the breaking point. Governments have been too slow to act.

With prices of gasoline, groceries and more spiking, the United States should take the lead in restoring order to supply chains before it is too late. By using its influence, the United States should persuade other countries to address an underlying cause of the crisis — working conditions for transport workers.

Long before the Ever Given, a 220,000-ton container ship, blocked the Suez Canal in March, transport industries had issued a blunt public warning that a trade logjam was unavoidable if conditions for sailors, drivers and pilots were not improved. To keep trade moving, workers urgently need fast-tracked visas, the return of flights to and from ports and vaccinations. Instead, the opposite happened. Draconian travel bans and limited access to vaccinations have had a devastating impact on transport workers’ well-being and safety. Crews have not been allowed to disembark ships without the right vaccination paperwork, so leaving or joining a ship has become impossible: Hundreds of thousands of them have been trapped on their vessels, with some working months beyond their initial contracts. Thousands of truck drivers at international borders have also been forced to sit for days in freezing temperatures without access to food or medical facilities. Pilots of cargo planes have faced extensive quarantines after completing international flights, meaning long periods away from their families.

This ill treatment may push many workers out of the sector, exacerbating the shortfall in labor that underpins the chaos. In the shipping industry alone, which moves around 80 percent of goods traded globally, there is an expected shortfall of thousands of officers in the next few years, according to a work force report from the International Chamber of Shipping and the Baltic and International Maritime Council. Left to depend on national vaccination programs, many transport workers, especially those from developing economies with less access to vaccines, will continue to suffer untenable work conditions.

Governments had a chance to avert this crisis. Transport workers around the world should have been prioritized for vaccination once vaccines became available. Countries everywhere should have made exemptions in travel restrictions for them. Yet a majority of countries have remained reluctant to act. This cannot be allowed to persist.

Global scrutiny is growing. The International Labour Organization, an arm of the United Nations, has found that national governments had failed abjectly to protect the minimum standards for the protection of seafarers’ rights, as set out in international law. Unchecked, the supply-chain crunch may persist because of attrition in the transport work force.

Washington has begun taking steps to address the problem. In the summer, President Biden announced the formation of a Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force to reduce pressure on the flow of trade into the United States. Last month it announced that the key Port of Los Angeles would join the Port of Long Beach in operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week — an encouraging move that could help get ships in and out of port more quickly.

Mr. Biden could go even further. He could encourage officials to change zoning rules to allow ports to store more empty containers, or ordering nearby land to serve as temporary container yards. He should also ensure the United States continues to set an example through its vaccination hubs at ports, which jab workers regardless of nationality. These hubs should carry widely recognized and approved vaccines to avoid delays when workers reach other countries.

Of course, clearing the container logjam in one city won’t stop global supply chains from breaking. The Biden administration should compel slow-to-act governments to improve their labor conditions. Applying pressure through everything from soft diplomacy to sanctions could help persuade them to expedite the movement of ships, trucks and planes, easing the supply-chain snarl.

Mr. Biden could also push for interoperability when it comes to vaccination protocols. This would mean persuading countries to recognize a wider range of vaccines for transport workers, including doses manufactured outside of their borders. This would allow seafarers to leave or join ships at ports far more quickly: They would no longer have to quarantine simply because they may have received the “wrong” type of vaccine.

It is not too late to save global supply chains. To do so, governments cannot forget that their strongest and most important links are human beings.

Guy Platten is the secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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