Caixin
Jun 17, 2021 07:40 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Demand Swells for Chinese Shipping Crews Amid Global Shortage

Sailors board a ship in the northern city of Tianjin in 2018. Photo: VCG
Sailors board a ship in the northern city of Tianjin in 2018. Photo: VCG

Chinese ship workers have become a hot commodity on the world’s high seas, welcomed by global ship operators for their relative safety due to China’s ability to remain largely free of Covid-19 this year.

One such worker, ship captain Shao Bo, recently accepted his latest assignment despite having labored for the last eight months. He said many ships are now refusing crew from other countries and regions that were previously popular recruiting grounds due to local flare-ups in recent months. That’s created an opportunity for people like himself to earn big money.

“Right now there’s an extremely short supply of ship workers, so companies hope people like me can continue to stay on their ships,” he said. “Salaries for ordinary ship workers have jumped from $4,000 a month to $5,500.”

Ocean shipping is responsible for 90% of the world’s trade, with bulk commodities like grains, coal, oil, iron ore and even many products being used to fight the pandemic being sent via such transport. Accordingly, ship crews are an important link in the global trade picture. But many shippers are avoiding crew members from the traditionally fertile hiring grounds of India and Southeast Asia lately due to recent major outbreaks that have sent many into various states of lockdown.

Before the latest outbreaks, Indian and Filipino crew members were particularly popular due to their relatively low salary requirements and English ability. Of the roughly 1.64 million crew members used by international commercial shippers in 2019, around 740,000 came from either the Philippines or India, accounting for nearly half of the global total, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.

But after India experienced a major outbreak dating back to February and many Southeast Asian nations battled similar surges, outbreaks on ships began to grow as well, started by infected crew members from those countries. In one instance, a ship called the Eaubonne traveling from India to South Africa was found to have 14 Filipinos on board who tested positive for the virus on reaching its destination in early May, resulting in the entire ship being quarantined for several weeks.

Hiring of Filipinos has dropped sharply due to growing suspicion among managers after several instances where such workers provided faked results showing they had tested negative for the virus, Gilbert Liu, one such recruiter in Singapore, told Caixin.

Many ports around the world have also refused entry to ships with Indian crew following that country’s outbreak that made global headlines, leading many shippers to also avoid Indian crew members. A similar situation exists for workers from Myanmar, another major supplier of ship crew that has experienced a sharp uptick in Covid-19 cases.

To fill the global shortage of around 1 million crew members, many shippers have turned to China’s workforce of around 1.65 million crew members, nearly half of whom work on ocean routes while the rest work on domestic waterways.

Liu said that even before Covid, Chinese crew were considered desirable among ship owners for their ability to work without complaint, and for their stability and reliability. Many such workers have also already been vaccinated.

Li Haibing, in charge of finding such crew members in the southern port city of Shenzhen for Cosco, one of China’s top shipping operators, told Caixin he is now sending out notices seeking large numbers of ship staff every two to three weeks.

“Ship owners are now all clearly stating they want Chinese staff. Demand already exceeds supply and salaries have doubled,” he said

While they have filled a gap left by workers from other parts of Asia, Chinese chip crew members are still mostly confined to shipping routes connected to China and for domestic shipping. Such workers are still relatively uncommon on other international routes, though that could change as many get attracted to such higher-paying jobs after the pandemic starts to ease.

Contact reporter Yang Ge (yangge@caixin.com) and editor Flynn Murphy (flynnmurphy@caixin.com)

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