Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Despite All the Promises the Scandal of Stranded Crews Continues

More Demands for Vaccines and Priority Status for Seafarers
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – Despite all the good intentions and previous promises of action, the problem of crew changes during the pandemic, with all its implications for safety and mental health, is hanging around like a bad smell in a telephone box. Once again the cry to relieve those seafarers trapped far from home has gone up, this time from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

Now that vaccines are gradually being rolled out the ICS is calling for governments to put seafarers and frontline maritime shore workers at the head of the queue and to designate seafarers as keyworkers, to avoid a repeat of the 2020 crew change crisis which still exists in many ports, largely due to continued travel restrictions as new variants spring up around the globe.

Covid-19 related restrictions have forced hundreds of thousands of workers to overrun their contracts, raising concerns over ship safety, crew fatigue and access to healthcare. Seafarers are currently being severely impacted by the crew change crisis, with some approaching two years stuck at sea. With limited support from national governments, there is real concern that, under new restrictions, this number will rapidly increase rather than reduce.

The Philippines, for example, has expanded its temporary crew change ban to 35 countries, barring foreign seafarers from disembarking at Philippine ports. The UK is banning travellers from South America, and the US has also toughened its entry requirements. This is part of a wider global retrenchment around ease of travel, which the shipping industry fears could result in hundreds of thousands of seafarers becoming the collateral damage of government inaction.

The shipping industry knows that healthy, vaccinated seafarers are critical in keeping nations supplied with vital goods and has made this point previously, with seemingly little or no attention paid thus far. Increasingly in 2021, this trade will include medical supplies such as syringes and the personal protective equipment (PPE) required as part of the roll out of Covid-19 vaccines.

Representing more than 80% of global ship owners, ICS is now demanding that governments around the world take their duties to seafarers seriously and avoid a repeat of the mistakes of 2020. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s high-level committee of legal experts found last year that governments had breached seafarers’ rights and failed to comply with several provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To guarantee the safety of its labour force, the shipping industry and bodies such as ICS are united in calling on the wider supply chain to take action and support seafarers immediately. The average ship has a mix of at least three nationalities on board, and sometimes as many as thirty. This fact makes the possibility of vaccinating by nationality, which is the current model of vaccine distribution, challenging. Priority access to vaccines for all seafarers, and clear ‘vaccine passport’ protocols in line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, is seen as vital to the maintenance of global trade.

Prior to the ILO’s ruling in December 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that calls for all countries around the world to designate seafarers as key workers. Pope Francis also voiced his concern for the 400,000 stranded seafarers, by urging governments to do all they can to end the crew change crisis.

While more than 40 countries have so far recognised seafarers as key workers, the majority of seafaring nations have not, creating growing demand from within industry for new solutions to the issue of vaccine distribution, before the humanitarian crisis facing seafarers gets any worse. Guy Platten, Secretary General of the ICS, commented:

“The benefits of vaccinating those responsible for transporting the vaccine and PPE around the world should be obvious. Governments must class seafarers as ‘key workers’ and give them priority access to the vaccine, as the inability to rotate crews from their ships risks the passage of the critical medical materials needed for the global vaccination effort.

“If we want to maintain global trade, seafarers must not be put to the back of the vaccine queue. Governments will not be able to inject their citizens without the shipping industry or, most importantly, our seafarers.”

The ICS backs up its arguments with hard facts. Between March and August 2020, ICS estimates that only 25% of normal crew changes were able to take place. During normal circumstances, ICS estimates around 100,000 seafarers are rotated every month, to comply with relevant international maritime regulations, governing safe working hours and crew welfare, so that they can continue to transport global trade safely. Estimates show up to 400,000 seafarer are currently stranded at sea by the crew change crisis, leaving the same number unable to join their ships.

Fatigue after long periods at sea has significant consequences on the physical and mental wellbeing of these seafarers. Physically, seafarers can often work 7 days a week and 10-12 hours shifts to man ships, performing tasks that require constant professional attention. They also typically work between four and six months on ships, followed by a period of leave. However, extensive periods at sea, in some cases, over 17 months, have become routine as a result of Covid-19 and increase the risk of accidents on board.

The inability to change crews also poses a significant threat to the integrity of maritime supply chains. Around 90% of global trade is transported by commercial shipping, which moves the world’s food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components, including vital medical supplies and many products sold in supermarkets, essential to all householders.

As of 2019, the total value of the annual world shipping trade had reached more than $7 trillion. Around 11 billion tonnes of goods are transported by ship each year, representing 1.5 tonnes per person based on the current global population. To service this the worldwide population of seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships is estimated at 1,647,500 seafarers, of which 774,000 are officers and 873,500 are ratings (according to the latest Manpower Report from ICS and BIMCO).

Photo: Courtesy of ICS.