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Some governments waking up to crew change crisis as deadline, shipping chaos looms

news 14 Jun 2020

The clock is counting down for governments to make Covid-19 travel exceptions and arrangements for seafarers, as an estimated over 200,000 of them are waiting to disembark from the world’s ships and return home.

Since governments began introducing restrictions aimed at stopping the deadly virus from spreading, seafarers have found themselves unable to go ashore for rest and relaxation, medical treatment, and to go home after finishing their contracts. With the world’s governments shifting blame for the growing humanitarian crisis, the reality of these workers exercising their right to ‘get off’ is starting to hit home.

In an interview with The Financial Times, ITF  General Secretary Stephen Cotton said that after June 16, “We won’t tell seafarers they have to stay on board. If they want off, we will assist them getting off,”.

Until now, governments, including major ‘flag states’ that certify and issue licences to the world’s shipping and cruise fleet, have relied on ‘force majeure’, or classifying the pandemic as an act of God, to suspend mandatory international maritime regulations and extend seafarers’ contracts. Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson told a high-level panel that this excuse from governments will no longer work. He said the protocols developed by unions and employers, and endorsed by the UN’s International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization in May, means that governments have been given every option for resolving the crisis.

There could be major consequences for global shipping if thousands of seafarers refuse to extend their employment contracts and demand to be repatriated, without fresh crew able to relieve them. Many ships could fail to meet minimum manning levels, causing port authorities to stop them, or ships’ P&I insurance coverage may lapse. This would be catastrophic for the world’s trade routes and the billions of consumers that rely on them.


Canada, Hong Kong lead the way

A few countries are beginning to understand the severity of the situation and are making the changes they need to. Speaking to Splash247’s Sam Chambers, ITF Canadian coordinator Peter Lahay said that Canada has started positioning itself as a crew change hub.

The ITF has been working with Canada’s Chamber of Shipping and regulator Transport Canada on new Covid-19 protocols so seafarers can “transfer to and from airports, hotels and ships”. Critically, crew leaving ships will not require visas or to quarantine as they pass through Canada, while the relieving crew will not need to quarantine on their way to the ship. Seafarers from countries that still require a visa will be able to apply online and receive confirmation by email.

Pragmatic exceptions like Canada’s could save global shipping from grinding to a halt. Hong Kong last week introduced its own protocols that are aimed at facilitating and supporting crew change. Seafarers signing on or off in Hong Kong will not need to quarantine or obtain special permits in order to board  or disembark on their way home. Hong Kong’s authorities stress that shipping companies or their agents should arrange for seafarers to get to and from the vessels with as little community interaction as possible. In the scheme of the impending trade crunch caused by this crisis, a taxi to the pier is a small price to pay for keeping the world’s ships moving.


Symptom of a broken system

The crisis has shown how fragmented and broken the international shipping system is. There are flag states that can’t, or won’t, get seafarers repatriated. There are ‘labour providing countries’ from where the majority of the world’s seafarers are from, whose governments refuse to let them come home. And then there are the powerful port states, that are happy to accept the movement of goods that benefit their economies and communities, but stop short at helping seafarers be relieved and sent home after months on these ships.

Among the flag states, Cyprus has announced its special crew change protocols. Shipping Deputy Minister Natasa Pilides wrote that “Facilitating crew changes is crucial to protect seafarers' wellbeing & international trade. The transport of essential goods to people who need it is now more important than ever.”

In the labour supply countries, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs is warning that “as many as 35,000 Filipino seafarers are expected to come home after being displaced by a novel coronavirus pandemic”. The country has tried to restrict the number of repatriations daily, with many Filipino seafarers still stuck on cruise ships in Manila Bay and unable to come ashore.

And when it comes to the port states, in Europe the United Kingdom’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called on the Boris Johnson’s government to push for crew change implementation across the world. TUC head Frances O’Grady said that her country should “lead the international effort to facilitate crew changes and create 'safe corridors' that allow free movement for seafarers,”

“Seafarers play an essential role in global trade networks, keeping our economies running and delivering essential goods,” she said. “They should be recognised as key workers and given the pay and support they need. But instead thousands are stranded at sea and in ports. Without action, this crisis will undermine our critical supply chains and hurt the UK's economic recovery.”

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