The explosion in consumer demand over the past year and a half was the trigger of the ongoing global shipping crisis. There was some hope demand for goods would ease this year, but up until now, it has stayed at record highs. On the other hand, wait times have never been longer and the logistical nightmare faced by global supply chains seems to have no clear end in sight. Experts are now predicting that it will take at least another year before the shipping crisis starts to stabilize. However, the uncontrolled spread of the new virus variant and the slower pace of staff vaccination may jeopardize that forecast. Unfortunately, this means also the worst is yet to come. Supply chains are about to face many more disruptions and consumers will have to deal with extensive shortages from now on.
The backlog at ports is a problem that has only been intensified since March 2020, compounded by a challenge that definitely won’t be solved in the next five to six months: increasingly large container ships, and ports that haven’t been remodeled to accommodate the gigantic vessels. In fact, the Port of Los Angeles just recorded its busiest month in history, with over 1 million shipping containers waiting to get unloaded. To make matters worse, a shortage of port workers and the unprecedented volume of cargo are overwhelming longshoremen and seafarers who are having to work for months beyond their contracted lines.
At this point, the crew change is severely worsening, with thousands of workers trapped at sea for over a year. “I’ve seen grown men cry,” revealed Captain Tejinder Singh, who hasn’t set foot on dry land in almost a year and isn’t even sure when he’ll finally go home. “We are forgotten and taken for granted,” he said in an interview with Reuters. At least one hundred thousand workers are stranded at sea as the Delta variant rapidly spreads onshore. The Maritime Labour Convention highlighted that that the maximum continuous period a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months, but many thousands of crew have now been at sea for over 16 months. “The situation is going from bad to worse. We need more than lip service from governments, we need concrete action that allows crew changes to be carried out in a safe manner,” stressed Stephen Cotton, general secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation.
With virus outbreaks occurring on ships and endangering the lives of marine workers, further disruptions on trade are expected, according to a new Bloomberg report. On the flip side, another 100,000 are stuck on shore, unable to board the ships they need to earn a living on. Can you even imagine the nightmare of being stuck at sea for over a year? According to the United Nations, the situation is quickly evolving into a major humanitarian crisis. Given that only 2.5% of seafarers have been vaccinated, the vast majority of them are not allowed to go back home.
An imminent labor crunch could halt global shipping indefinitely and threaten the operations of global supply chains for months. Keeping in mind that the global economy is heavily dependent on the world’s almost two million seafarers who operate the global fleet of merchant ships, which transport around 90% of the world’s trade, the aggravation of this crisis also poses a major threat to the US supply chains. We are extremely reliant on exports to keep our economy up and running. Everything — from oil to iron, to food and electronics — either comes or is processed overseas. According to Insider’s Rachel Premack, this also means that American consumers should brace for yet higher prices and shortages of many products.
As chaos sweeps across global supply chains, we’re might be headed to a holiday season of empty shelves yet again. Right now, the international shipping crisis is deepening the financial pain faced by our producers as U.S. agricultural exports are seeing their shipping times increase dramatically. The imbalances between supply and demand are only intensifying global supply chain woes. And this crisis will only truly ebb when demand does. “The import level we’ve seen in the past year is astronomical and not something that our infrastructure can handle,” as Premack laid out. This is a tumultuous and unprecedented time, and we all should start getting prepared for the imminent chaos while we still can because there are serious threats emerging on the horizon.