March 30 ------ The extension of time at sea for seafarers due to restrictions on crew changes and travel across the globe in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus has left thousands of seafarers stuck at sea. In any given month around 100,000 seafarers reach the end of their employment contracts and are repatriated, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). The crewing crisis has seen conditions onboard vessels deteriorate and is impacting seafarers’ state of mind. The seafarers are reporting an increasing trend of non-payment of wages, contract extensions without informed consent, crews being left in foreign states to pay hotel bills and to seek flights home using their own funds. What is more, certain ships are not even able to stock up vessels with fruit and vegetables.
Putting seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing at risk is also a safety risk for the shipping industry and tradeflows, industry bodies have warned. “I believe that collective, carefully managed crew changes at designated ports could help us tackle this crisis,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder and CEO of Singapore-based ship manager Synergy Group. The company employs over 12,000 seafarers on more than 300 vessels. “Seafarers returning home would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine period, of course. And those joining ships would need to pass a mandatory medical, including a Covid-19 test. “Even if Covid-19 infections subside, which we all hope they will do, putting a plan in place now will be good preparation for the future.” Unions and human rights NGOs have been very vocal about the issues resulting from crew change bans and have been calling for immediate action to declare seafarers as key transport workers to facilitate their movement.
Captain Unni is now reaching out to like-minded stakeholders to expedite collective crew changes. “We have already spoken to a number of leading ship owners and they agree this is a positive way forward,” he said. “We have also identified a number of ports where we think this can be actioned. “We are now approaching leading shipping organizations and have contacted the IMO about how we can move this forward with the utmost haste.” Unni believes that the situation represents “a time bomb”. “Right now, in the midst of a pandemic when of course people are anxious, thousands are stuck at sea or stranded around the world waiting to join vessels but unable to do so. I have heard the argument that seafarers are safest at sea waiting this out. But nobody knows how long this pandemic will last. Doing nothing is not a plan. This also has the potential to disrupt the global supply chains millions are relying on in these terrible times. Seafarers will only put up with this uncertainty and poor treatment for so long, and rightly so,” he concluded.
Over the past few days, port authorities have started to ease some of their regulations to facilitate crew exchanges. The Western Australian Government softened its restrictions, enabling crew changes at Western Australian Ports provided any local terminal/port Authority regulations allow them to do so. Bangladesh has also waived travel restrictions for shipping related personnel, as well as China. According to the Chinese Transport Ministry, around 10,000 Chinese seafarers are expected to return home by the end of May.