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, according to an alliance of leading shipowners and managers.

At present more than a 100,000 seafarers are in effect marooned at sea because coronavirus shutdowns worldwide are preventing them from entering or transiting countries and/or finding flights on which to return home. Pictures credit: Synergy Group
At present more than a 100,000 seafarers are in effect marooned at sea because coronavirus shutdowns worldwide are preventing them from entering or transiting countries and/or finding flights on which to return home. Pictures credit: Synergy Group

At present, more than 100,000 seafarers are in effect marooned at sea because coronavirus shutdowns worldwide are preventing them from entering or transiting countries and/or finding flights on which to return home.

The alliance 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’.

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.”

The ‘who’s who’ alliance of like-minded shipping companies came together in response to the crew change crisis which has intensified as coronavirus has spread around the world.

The alliance now represents more than 1,500 vessels and over 70,000 seafarers and includes 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.

Collective crew changes are viable now

Members believe collective crew changes at identified ports are a feasible short-term aim even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic if 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.

“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,” said Captain Unni.

“We are delighted to have the support of the International Chamber of Shipping and International Transport Workers’ Federation. 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.”

Minimal risk to port states

The alliance is confident that collective crew changes can be managed at minimal risk.

“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,” alliance members said a joint statement.

“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.”

Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), said he was proud of how the shipping industry was responding to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“90% of all global trade is transported by commercial shipping,” he added. “At the heart of all this are the unsung heroes – ship crews especially, but also port staff and those who provide the logistics for the ships.

“Governments must not forget that our seafarers are key workers and ensure consistent support at this critical time.”

The Crew Change Time Bomb

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.

Every month around 100,000 seafarers are rotated on/off vessels worldwide 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.

Seafarers must be officially recognised as essential workers in the fight against Covid-19, believes David Wonfor, Vice President, Global Head of Managed Services, Inchcape Shipping Services.

“Seafarers have limitations on the amount of time they can work onboard a vessel which is governed by the vessel Flag State,” he said.

“Even if this period can be extended in exceptional circumstances, it can be detrimental to the mental health and wellbeing of crew to work for such extended periods without any downtime.

“Seafarers who are now stranded ashore and cannot re-join vessels will not be earning any income and in many cases are the only breadwinner in their families.”

Mental Health a Growing Concern

Graham Westgarth, CEO of V.Group, is concerned about the mental health of seafarers stranded at sea indefinitely.

“First and foremost, prolonged periods of service onboard will ultimately result in a significant increase in mental wellbeing issues among the seafaring community,” he said.

“We should also be aware of the negative impact it will have on their families. Ultimately, such a situation can only jeopardise the safety of the individuals and potentially the vessels they sail on.

Westgarth called for governments and regulators to recognise the critical role seafarers play in the supply chain and their importance to the safe delivery of food, medical equipment and energy sources.

“Simply put, governments need to adopt mechanisms which allow unencumbered movement of seafarers to and from their vessels,” he added. “The European Commission has issued guidelines to this effect. These should be adopted not only by EU members but on a global basis.

“The shipping industry recognises that it needs to play its part by putting in place relevant risk mitigation strategies.”

Uncertainty at Sea

Keith Obeyesekera, Managing Director of Reederei Nord B.V., said crew members on ships were facing terrible uncertainty about when they may be relieved after completion of their contracts.

“Crew mental health deteriorates in these circumstances and they could be prone to errors which can, in extreme cases, lead to loss of life, damage to the environment and property,” he added.

“Governments need to recognise that shipping and seafaring is an essential service, and should be categorised as such. If done so, then seafarers can be given special status for travel, visa issuance and their passage to and from their home countries streamlined. 

“Currently, in some instances, crew members requiring urgent medical attention have not been allowed ashore, or have not been allowed to sign off in their own home countries.”

Current Policy Unsustainable

Brendon Hawley, Head of Safety and Compliance, Wilhelmsen Ships Service, added: “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.”