Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Governments Must Recognise That Seafarers are Key Workers and Negotiate Crew Changeovers

Stakeholders Say they Have Workable Plans to See Sailors Safely Get Home
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – Government's around the globe are receiving pleas for support from every corner of society and one of the most plaintiff cries comes from those who represent the crews of vessels effectively marooned at sea whilst the pandemic rages.

We have spoken personally to those aboard craft lying in European waters who were given a simple ultimatum as this current crisis arose, either remain on board until further notice, or get off and be replaced, meaning no salary for an unknown period, meanwhile exchange crew on contract ashore are left with no certainty of wage payments.

Now an alliance of shipping companies collectively representing 1,500 vessels and 70,000 seafarers has come together to set out the position which it estimates sees more than 100,000 seafarers stranded at sea as the Covid-19 virus prevents them entering or transiting countries and/or finding flights on which to return home.

The group says current coronavirus policy as applied to shipping is a potentially disastrous ‘own goal’ that threatens not only the mental health and human rights of seafarers, but also the viability of ocean supply chains on which those in lockdown depend. It has developed port viability and detailed seafarer risk assessment plans which it is convinced will mitigate the risk of coronavirus infections during essential crew changeovers. It is now urging immediate governmental and inter-governmental action to enable the resumption of crew changes including the designation of seafarers as ‘key workers’.

Members believe collective crew changes at identified ports are a feasible short-term aim even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic assuming State assistance is made available. The alliance has identified key ports where collective crew changes can potentially be organised. The ports include Singapore, Houston, Rotterdam, Gibraltar, Jebel Ali, Fujairah, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO and Founder of leading Singapore-based ship manager Synergy Group, commented:

“We understand Covid-19 is a black swan event. But measures aimed at protecting society were never intended to prevent key workers from carrying out tasks essential to the ongoing wellbeing of society. These policies were also not intended to be detrimental to the welfare of key workers such as seafarers, yet that is exactly what is now happening. Current policy represents a potentially disastrous own goal. Our collective aim as responsible owners and managers employing tens of thousands of seafarers is to pursue every means possible to get crew back to their families.

“As well as identifying ports we have also developed a rigorous risk assessment methodology and drawn up action plans that we, as employers of seafarers and organisers of crew logistics, can implement to mitigate the risks of infection. We are delighted to have the support of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Governments must act and assign ports in proximity to suitable airports so that crew changes can be resumed. This really is a time bomb. It is imperative governments recognise this and take action.”

Over 1.6 million seafarers keep the world’s merchant fleet at sea, delivering fuel, medicines, food and equipment to those countries where large portions of the population are currently under curfew as governments try to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Around 100,000 of those are rotated on/off vessels worldwide every month in accordance with international safety and working hours’ regulations.

However, the closure of borders and strict quarantine rules are preventing crew changes from being completed in accordance with employment contracts and international conventions including the Maritime Labour Convention, leaving thousands stranded at sea for periods far beyond their contracts. A joint statement by Alliance members said:

“Whilst we, as responsible owners and managers, would have to work on the micro level to deal with the logistics of transporting a seafarer from his home to the vessel and vice versa, matters such as access to airlines and airports and immigration clearances are political decisions. We urge port states and the G20 nations to take all actions possible to facilitate crew changes.

“The world relies on seafarers to deliver everything they need including medicines, food and energy. The shipping industry and seafarers are now relying on the world’s politicians to respect their human rights and protect their welfare in these difficult times. Seafarers are key workers and they should be classified as such and their plight addressed with all expediency.”

Members of the Alliance include such as D/S Norden, Grieg Star, Reederei Nord, Dynacom, V.Group, Wilhelmsen Ships Service, Pacific Carriers Limited (PCL), Magsaysay, Augustea, Columbia Ship Management, Inchcape Shipping Services and Synergy Group, an impressive collection of industry leading stakeholders.

All involved spoke out with feeling on subjects which concern them whilst Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) spoke of his pride at how the industry had responded to the crisis. David Wonfor, Vice President, Global Head of Managed Services, Inchcape Shipping Services, Graham Westgarth, CEO of V.Group and Keith Obeyesekera, Managing Director of Reederei Nord B.V., all expressed concerns for the mental health of crews facing an uncertain future, stranded far from home, and pointed out the stress on families left behind, with Brendon Hawley, Head of Safety and Compliance, Wilhelmsen Ships Service, adding:

“The safety and welfare of our customers’ crew is always at the heart of everything we do as port agents. This current situation, where crew change is close to impossible in most ports around the world, is not sustainable long-term.

“With a truly global network of port agents, we are proud to work alongside Synergy and other leading ship managers and owners in finding solutions in ports when and where crew change can resume. However, we are fully dependent on support from governments and regulators to make this happen.”