Expect more shipping chaos as Omicron forces transportation workers to quit

As the Omicron variant takes hold, workers delivering goods to ships and trucks bear the brunt of a supply chain infrastructure still mired in chaos. Faced with long weeks of quarantine combined with the precariousness of crossing borders and the fear of falling ill, some people refuse contracts while others seek work elsewhere, according to the companies.

In Romania, many truck drivers are unwilling to take on long-haul jobs in other parts of Europe, stung by last year’s 30-mile traffic jams and waits of up to 6 p.m. at the borders of the EU. Countries with increasing infections are particularly problematic, according to Alex Constantinescu, CEO of Alex International Transport 94 SRL, which operates 130 trucks that deliver pharmaceutical and food products across the continent.

Already facing a shortage of drivers before the pandemic, the labor crisis in the trucking industry has become more acute, he said. The company has had to increase wages by around 30 percent over the past three years.

“Long hours on the road, sleeping in the cab and now not knowing if the people you interact with have the virus – truck driving is not very appealing anymore,” said Constantinescu, who founded the company 27 years ago. “I look behind me and I don’t see any new generation of drivers. The pandemic has made this job very unattractive. “

In the UK, the ranks of heavy truck drivers fell 23%, or around 72,000 people, in the second quarter compared to 2019, according to data from Logistics UK. In China, it’s fear of draconian quarantines due to the government’s COVID-zero strategy that keeps drivers away. As recently as last week, the entire western city of Xi’an, which has a population of 13 million, was stranded after 127 cases.

“China has very strict political measures to control outbreaks and this makes truck drivers reluctant to go to certain areas where they could be quarantined,” said Salmon Aidan Lee, head of polyesters at the firm of Wood Mackenzie energy consultancy. “These tough measures have further contributed to supply chain problems and some polyester factories have had to close.”

The shipping industry faces similar workforce challenges.

While the crew change crisis that prevented sailors from returning home and being replaced by new sailors largely eased – less than 5% of sailors were on board ships beyond their contract expires in mid-November, down from 9% in mid-November. In July, according to the Neptune Declaration’s crew change indicator, companies can no longer attract them.

Western Shipping Pte Ltd., a Singapore-based tanker operator, said about 20% of its roughly 1,000 seafarers do not want to re-board the ships. About 5% of the 30,000 sailors in the Anglo-Eastern Univan group had indicated last month that they were not interested in a new contract.

Western Shipping needs to hire seafarers from other companies and offer them good bonuses, according to managing director Belal Ahmed, who also chairs the International Maritime Employers Council.

Some of those delaying the return to sea are senior crew members, such as senior and tenured officers, said Bjorn Hojgaard, managing director of Anglo-Eastern Univan ship manager.

“Even before COVID, it was difficult to find the right person with the right experience and the right training on a ship,” said Hojgaard, who is also president of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association. “Today we have to compromise. It worries me, we are not doing anything good for the safety of the ships.

The shortage could worsen as shipowners and charterers demand that only vaccinated crews be hired. And with Omicron requiring more callbacks, the shortage is intensifying. According to the Neptune Declaration indicator, less than 30 percent of seafarers in India and the Philippines, among the major countries providing seafarers, were fully immunized by mid-November.

“We can’t force sailors to get vaccinated, but customers are saying they will only use fully vaccinated crews,” said Mark O’Neil, managing director of Columbia Shipmanagement Ltd. “It has been a challenge to keep these huge freighters moving. “

Wilhelmsen Ship Management, which manages a pool of around 10,000 sailors, is troubled by the tendency of junior officers to turn down contracts, although this has not yet affected the company’s overall crew retention rate, said said CEO Carl Schou. Still, the pipeline of future officers, who require years of training, could be disrupted.

“What happens then is you bring in people who are not qualified, you give them shorter training and promote them to roles that require more experience,” Ahmed said. “This could lead to more serious incidents and accidents on ships, groundings and even pollution. I’m afraid we’re headed for disaster.

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