Global crisis

Deepening crew change scenario threatening seafarer safety and maritime safety, leading industry figures warn

The crew change crisis that has left some 400,000 seafarers stranded on vessels will not only damage the industry but also have a lasting effect on the health of its workers, the shipping industry has been warned.

At a gathering on the fringes of the UN General Assembly (September 24), several key players from unions, business and the wider industry spoke of the growing concern for crew welfare and safety as it emerged that some had spent up to a year-and-a-half on board vessels in the wake of the COVID 19 outbreak.

“Not knowing when or if we will be returning home brings a severe mental toll on my crew and myself,” said Captain Marzougui, who was in charge of a vessel from  December 2019 and May 2020. 

He appealed to Governments to intervene, adding: “I would encourage each and every one of you to think of how you would feel, if you had to work every day, for 12 hours, with no weekends, without seeing your loved ones, and trapped at sea. Now add that you have to do that with no idea of when you will be repatriated.”

Since the global outbreak of COVID 19 began in late 2019, the movement of seafarers has been dramatically restricted. As Governments seek to impose measures to contain its spread through quarantine, calls have been increasing for ship crew to be classed as key workers, a move that would facilitate their travel. Instead, the number of seafarers whose contracts have been extended by several months has continued to increase.

In a statement on the issue, the IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim said: “Some seafarers have now been at sea for 17 months without a break, well beyond the 11-month limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). 

“Besides the 400,000 seafarers stuck at sea, another 400,000 are unable to join ships. This threatens the fundamentals of ship safety standards which the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has worked to develop over six decades.”

Managing the crisis

Although the situation remains critical, efforts are being made to offer respite to those that are stranded. Roger Harris, the Executive Director at ISWAN, said his organisation – which addresses crew welfare – had been working with a number of companies to improve and manage the wellbeing of their crews.

“There is quite a lot of work going on behind the scenes and a lot of unanimous thinking,” Roger said. “The companies we work with are trying really hard to change the crews. They’re working really hard with the unions because they understand the stress the seafarers are under. The difficulty remains with the governments and the way they’re managing the spread of COVID-19.”

The strain in that respect is palpable and it’s creating a diverse set of problems. In labour supply countries such as India and the Philippines it is only charter flights that are being allowed in and out, while Singapore is imposing a strict two-week quarantine on all those entering. It isn’t clear in that respect if workers are being paid to quarantine or paid while they’re waiting to be tested.

“It’s an additional strain on workers that are already in a difficult position,” Harris added. “In the Philippines seafarers are having to find hotels while they wait to be tested. They’re reluctant to stay in hostels because they risk being infected, but also aren’t being paid until they board a plane – so in some cases they’re being left with very little choice.”

The number of calls to ISWAN’s helpline has tripled since the crisis began at the start of the year, Harris adds. Most he says are about repatriation and concern for families from whom they’re separated, which is an added layer of difficulty. He says that the frustration is palpable but that at the same time, there’s an element of gratitude and a glimmer of hope as organisations work toward a resolution.

“In many respects they feel forgotten,” Harris says. “So it’s reassuring for them to be in contact with organisations like ours, like the Mission to Seafarers or the Sailors Society. They’re able to take a little comfort from the fact that the IMO and ILO and other organisations are pushing for a resolution. I think they need that.”

Positive outcome?

There are small signs that the some headway could be made. In October the IMO updated its safe crew change protocols, which itself was a revision of guidance issued in May. Under the guidelines the IMO emphasises the need for compliance and strict adherence with COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements, reflecting that these are now a reality in many national jurisdictions.

In the weeks that followed, Chile relaxed its stance on foreigners entering the country.  The South American country said it would allow “the entry by air of foreign crew members of merchant ships is authorised to allow the replacement of personnel on board, considering that the workers on the ships are essential to maintain the supply and logistics chain of supplies.” China too has opened 10 ports to facilitate crew changes.

The number of countries following suit remains few and far between however, suggesting that Government intervention is needed if there is to be a breakthrough. To date only a handful of countries have stepped forward to offer hope to seafarers, while charterers continue to refuse bookings of vessels that require crew changes. It’s a situation that has prompted ICS Secretary General to take an emphatic swipe at global efforts to alleviate the problem.

“It is completely unacceptable. You’ve got ship owners, ship managers and crews suffering here. Countries have abdicated their responsibilities to abide by international conventions. Every single country is somewhat to blame with an unprecedented lack of cooperation by countries in solving the problem,” he said. 

“To solve it, governments need to step up to their international responsibilities. We need the whole supply chain, including governments and wider society, to take action here to solve this crisis.”  How forthcoming that will be is anyone’s guess.