The Global Supply Chain is Under Pressure: People, Not Tools, Can Save It

Labor shortages in the global supply chain are cuasing shortages of fuel and food.
During the pandemic, global supply chains have kept food, vaccines and consumer goods moving. Now, the cracks are starting to show as labor shortages lead to food and fuel crises. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, people gave little thought to the workings of the global supply chain. In the world of Amazon and Google, most of us have become accustomed to getting everyday items—from groceries to luxury devices—delivered to our front door simply by engaging a few buttons on our cell phones. While the pandemic might have had a marginal impact on some of the things we were able to obtain, many of us have lived our lockdown lives without any significant disruption to our consumption of material goods. 

However, recent events might suggest that all is not well with the global supply chain. The International Chamber of Shipping has published an open letter to world governments and the World Health Organization (WHO) advocating for better conditions for transport workers around the world, including a global standard for vaccination requirements, better access to vaccines and removing freedom of movement restrictions. The letter has been signed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Road Transport Union (IRU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). These organizations represent over 65 million transport workers from around the world, 3.5 million transport companies and more than $20 trillion of world trade annually. 

While the world has relied on transport workers to deliver critical supplies like consumer goods, medical supplies and even vaccines, the workers have struggled with travel restrictions, lack of access to vaccines and constant quarantining since March 2020. Many seafaring transport workers extended their contracts early in the pandemic to ensure continued delivery of products, only to be met with a hodge-podge of international restrictions that have prevented them from having regular shore leave or even being able to leave their ships to facilitate crew changes. At one point in the pandemic, more than 400,000 ship workers had been unable to leave their ships for 18 months.  

Further, despite the fact that transport workers are helping to deliver vaccines around the world, those same workers are either not able to access the vaccine or are met with fragmented rules about which vaccinations are acceptable in each country they travel to. Some workers have had to take three different rounds of two-dose vaccines to meet conflicting international requirements, while others have been subjected to as many as 10 PCR tests in as few as seven days simply to take shore leave. As a result of these conflicting restrictions, many transport workers are simply walking away from jobs and refusing new contracts for fear of not seeing their families for indeterminant periods of time. 

These problems are not restricted to ocean transport. In the United Kingdom, labor problems in transport industries have created shortages of both food and fuel. After the final stages of Brexit negotiations earlier in the year, many EU-born transport workers left the UK and returned to their home countries, leaving a significant gap in the ability of suppliers to deliver food and fuel. As a result, shortages at fuel stations are causing social upheaval, with workers in critical industries unable to fuel their vehicles to get to work. The government is currently poised to bring in the military to drive trucks that deliver fuel to stations around the UK. Labor shortages in the food industry have left supermarket shelves across the UK empty, with the Food and Drink Federation warning that some of those shortages could be permanent. Industry experts are raising the possibility of a bleak holiday season in the UK, in which the fragile supply chain is unable to cope with end-of-year demand. 

So why is this happening, and what lessons can we learn from it? While this is unquestionably a complicated issue, there are two significant elements we might emphasize. The first is a lack of understanding of system complexity and resiliency. Those who work within the supply chain know very well how complex these systems are, but politicians and other leaders frequently do not. An overreliance on lean principles as a popular talking point without a thorough understanding of the process efficiencies they represent has been a common culprit in many pandemic shortages. This has been exacerbated by pandemic nationalism, in which patchwork national policies have taken a globally integrated supply chain and broken it into a series of fragments that end and then begin anew at each international border. 

The second important issue to consider is even more straightforward: people. Perhaps one of the greatest drawbacks of digital transformation and technology democratization is the tendency to forget how much our complex systems continue to rely on the labor, expertise and situational awareness of human beings. All the automated, AI-based systems money can buy are useless if no one has thought about whether or not there are people to drive delivery trucks or human hands to place items on shelves. Further, it’s not simply an issue of whether or not there are people to do the work, but also of how we treat the people doing the work. Many UK truck drivers report that they have left the industry because of poor pay, unsafe conditions and the severe pressure of rapid delivery schedules. For many of these workers, there are other industries that will provide better compensation without keeping them away from their families for weeks or months at a time.

These are critical items for every organization to consider. Safe, productive employment is a component of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which makes it imperative for today’s organizations to recognize their fundamental importance, not just from an ethical perspective, but for the simple and practical reason of providing incentive for people to continue doing the work. ISO 45003 Occupational health and safety management—Psychological health and safety at work—Guidelines for managing psychosocial risk supplements ISO 45001 for occupational health and safety management systems to recognize the importance of considering the psychological wellbeing of workers. These initiatives are a clear sign that organizational and political leadership must recognize the human elements of their critical supply chain systems, and that they should be doing a better job of ensuring they give as much care and attention to their people as they do their technology solutions.

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