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Slow adoption of crew change protocols is a ticking time bomb

Crew changes are taking place, but it is slow and not to the scale expected when the 12-point blueprint was unveiled a month ago. Any further delay will add to the anxiety and stress being felt by seafarers, who could stop working

About 50 countries have signed up to the 12-point protocols issued by the International Chamber of Shipping and International Transport Workers’ Federation and endorsed by the International Maritime Organization

GOVERNMENTS are risking shipping safety by not implementing crew change facilitation protocols quickly enough, according to senior industry figures.

While around 50 countries have signed up to the 12-point industry plan to allow crew changes issued a month ago, slow implementation of plans have left the vast majority of seafarers either stranded at sea or stuck at home due to travel restrictions.

Only 25% of the 400,000 seafarers due for changeover have been repatriated, according to an industry source.

The mounting crisis is the subject of increasingly urgent industry interventions at senior government levels as officials race to push through changes before the June 16 emergency extensions to many of the labour agreements governing seafarers’ contracts expire.

“This is a ticking time bomb that needs to be sorted out at a political level, now,” International Chamber of Shipping Secretary General Guy Platten told Lloyd’s List on Monday.

Despite a unified industry approach to facilitate crew change supported by unions and the International Maritime Organization, the pace and scale of the adoption of the plan has been lower than expected.

“The speed and scale of action needs to increase significantly if we are to relieve the seafarers trapped across the globe due to the continuing imposition of travel restrictions,” said Mr Platten. 

He added: “Many of these seafarers have extended their contracts again and again to ensure that countries are kept supplied with food, fuel and vital products, including medical supplies.”

For International Transport Workers’ Federation and International Maritime Employers’ Councilworkers, the double extension of contracts beyond the usual regulated timeframe comes to an end next week and repeated extensions is not a sustainable option.  

About 25% of seafarers from 1,200 in a survey have been at sea for 10 months or longer.

Based on comments seen online by Lloyd’s List on several platforms, seafarers are growing tired and restless, saying that change will only come through action. 

There are increasing calls by those who have been working at sea for prolonged periods, to, in a sense, down tools, because they are fed up, fatigued, stressed and anxious, and would like to get home to their families. Unions have said they would support such action.

Some of the reasons why uptake of the protocols has been slow is that while maritime authorities may be on board with the recommendations, health authorities, who have the final say, are less convinced, an industry source told Lloyd’s List. Combined with that are local laws and regulations, and bureaucracy, which make repatriation difficult. 

David Hammond, founder of Human Rights at Sea, said that until such time as global states have “a common approach to expedite crew changes in a safe and responsible manner, maritime trade will slow down or may even come to a halt”.

If the 12-point plan is not executed, crew fatigue will mean ships would be at risk of not being operated safely, contravening the standards set by the Maritime Labour Convention, which may have “significant impacts on insurance premiums in years to come”.

“While ports are opening up, such as Singapore, the numbers are tiny, and the single blockage is a lack of a consistent, collective approach along the entire global infrastructure chain,” he said. “It will be crews left holding the can.”

In a joint letter to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, the ITF and ICS said that as thousands of seafarers “face exhaustion at the helm of critical supply routes, the clock is ticking for governments”.

“Time is running out,” it said in May, adding that action needed to be taken ahead of the agreed deadline for crew changes of June 16.

“It’s time for governments to open their hearts, and open their borders, to the world’s seafarers. The alternative is exhausted crews and the shutting down of global trade. The world can’t afford that.”

The ITF said a protest may take place in front of government buildings in Hong Kong on June 9 to highlight the plight.

UN agencies — the IMO, ILO and ICAO — urged governments to recognise seafarers as key workers, exempt from travel restrictions.

A fraction repatriated

Intermanager, which said it has repatriated 25,000, launched a Maritime Champions Club which showcases the number of seafarers who have travelled. Wallem Group, meanwhile, said it has managed to repatriate more than 900 since March 1.

Singapore announced its first full crew change since restrictions were put in place to halt the risk of coronavirus spreading.

Under a new eased crew change protocol developed by the Singapore Crew Change Working Group, 19 Indian crew disembarked and are on their way home travelling on a chartered flight from Singapore to Colombo and then on to India. Their replacements, made up of 14 Sri Lankans and four Indian seafarers, who arrived in Singapore from Sri Lanka using the same chartered outbound flight, signed on the same day.

Most of Africa, South America, Latin America and ports in the Middle East are still closed to crew changes or shore leave, according to Wilhelmsen Ship agency. In the Caribbean, only Barbados appears to be open for crew change subject to certain conditions.

Maritime union Nautilus International has highlighted the plight of the seafarer.

Its secretary-general Mark Dickinson said there are reports of an increase in anxiety, depression, of suicides and hunger strikes. There also reports of resignations, of refusals to sail. A chief engineer, who had been on board for more than nine months, recently quit because of safety concerns.

Seafarers “must not be deprived of the basic human rights that everyone else benefits from. They need to be allowed home now, because the line between workers' rights and forced labour is a very thin one”.

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