Industry leaders have warned that shipping will have a big problem in the future if issues facing crews highlighted by the pandemic are not solved.

Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), told the London International Shipping Week conference that 100,000 seafarers remain over contract because of Covid-19 restrictions.

And he added that cases of vessel abandonment increased from 34 ships in 2018 up to a high of 85 in 2020.

"We've seen a lack of respect towards seafarers, with many governments not comprehending how our industry works," Cotton said.

The union man identified the fatigue and the stigma of not being able to support families back home as major concerns for crew members.

And he warned: "We may be confronted with a labour supply shortage if we don't find answers to reassure seafarers that we do respect them."

Who would want to be a seafarer?

This message was echoed by Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

He said that what happened last year — with seafarers being stuck on vessels for months longer than they should have been — is going to have an effect on whether people want to go back to sea.

"We're seeing that already. Why would a young person want to embark on a career at sea if they're not told when they're going to get home again?" Platten added.

"I think we've made some inroads in offering mental and physical health support to our seafarers, because ultimately if we don't put that in place it will be bad for business because no one will want to go away to sea."

"I hope it doesn't put young people off what is a truly rewarding career," Platten concluded.

Sabrina Chao, president of Bimco and chairman of Wah Kwong Maritime, said more collaboration is needed so that the industry speaks with one voice to call on governments to help.

More work needed

"Despite all the pressure that has been put on, not much has happened, so we need to continue to do that," she added.

"The industry has to be seen to be united in calling for seafarers to be vaccinated. This will then encourage governments to open up borders."

Many countries have still not identified seafarers as essential workers, the Bimco leader said, and she said this status is important.

MISC Berhad president Yee Yang Chien added: "There's a lot of talk but we need much more concrete action.