By Michael Grey*
“Am I a man – or an animal?” This was a question dramatically posed by a huge Sicilian lorry driver on a ferry that was carrying his truck full of vegetables on the overnight run up to Genoa. It was a very new service, designed to move cargo off the country’s north-south motorways and the chairman of the company (with me in tow) was aboard to test the opinions of the clientele. This particular haulier was overcome with such emotion at the delightful experience of the lavish facilities provided in contrast to the appalling conditions he faced on the roads, where he was treated as less than human, that he was practically weeping with gratitude as he hugged the diminutive chairman to his hairy chest.
I thought back to this dramatic interlude from the 1980s, as we are now enjoined to examine the way in which lorry drivers, now seen as a hugely vulnerable link in the logistics chain, are treated, and why there is now such a shortage of these essential workers. I recall on another occasion taking a ride on a Channel ferry with an old shipmate who was master of the ship and being impressed that he took time to speak to the truckers, who made up most of the passengers on the winter crossing. He was in no doubt that this trade was year round and the ferry company’s staple diet, (he called them the “bread and butter”) so anything that could be done to keep the drivers happy was common sense.
And over the years, while the life of the long-haul trucker on the roads has remained unchanging and squalid, when afloat on a ferry they are treated properly and well by the ferry operators. You can argue that in a competitive world, the sea carriers have a vested interest to practise generosity, but also that it is because of the competition they vie with each other to offer drivers’ lounges, special accommodation and other treats to keep the clients driving up their ramps.
But because the road haulage link in the transport chain has become demonstrably vulnerable, there is now all sorts of pressure being exerted to make the driver’s lot a happier one. I’m not entirely sure that it is the government’s job to improve the provision for better lorry parks and rest areas, although maybe we could do worse than persuade Stena, P&O and DFDS to take up the management of truck stops. And it must be a matter of some regret that it has taken a crisis, and a threat to Christmas, to alert everyone to the consequences of neglecting the welfare of important workers in such a fashion.
From the freight decks of a ferry it is but a short distance to another group of essential workers who have been even more neglected and especially so during the miserable duration of the pandemic. We maybe don’t think of the seafarers who have kept the world fleet running – indeed the average person wouldn’t think of them for a microsecond, even as we marvel at the pictures in the newspapers of giant ships, with all the Christmas goods aboard, waiting to discharge in the ports.
Seafarers are “can do” people and would probably be insulted to be described as a “potential weak link”, but it is fact that the welfare of this workforce has been horribly taken for granted since Covid-19 first appeared. Mind you, taking seafarers for granted predates any pandemic, but things have become infinitely more miserable over the past two years. A truck driver can alight from his cab and sleep in his own bed from time to time, but it is difficult to convey the sheer unpleasantness of a life without the ability to ever get ashore, trapped in a steel box for months on end and treated as a sort of leper by shoreside officials.
Scarcely a week goes by without a report expressing real concern about the mental pressures being faced by these small crews in big ships, the incidence of suicides and the general unhappiness of people who seem to have been forgotten by polite society, who certainly don’t read these studies. It might be true that there never has been a time like the present, but for the 400,000 seafarers afloat, with the same number wanting to get back to work and relieve them, this is a crisis that has largely been ignored by government, even as they might assert that they have designated them some changed status. It is so much easier than actually doing anything to address the problems they face.
If it took an empty lorry cab to draw attention to the problems faced by the drivers, what will it take to wake the world up to the miserable life currently lived by seafarers, who can’t get ashore, who can’t get vaccinated, who can’t get to work and who can’t get home on leave? Remember the question asked by that Sicilian trucker? You can have all the amazing technology of 24,000teu container ships and the fantastic port infrastructures to service them, but it all depends upon the willingness of frail human beings to make the system work. That’s the weakest link.
(Seafarer and trucker photos by Dreamstime)
*Michael Grey is former editor of Lloyd’s List. This column is published with the kind permission of Maritime Advocate Online.