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Owners rebuke crewing agents and airlines as stranded seafarers rise

The unresolved crewing crisis has left 300,000 seafarers at sea and unable to be repatriated

Significant bottlenecks include airlines’ unwillingness to make flights available between shipping destinations, as well as health and immigration authorities who failed to recognise United Nations protocols for crew changes

INTERCARGO has targeted crewing agents and airlines as key contributors to the unresolved crewing crisis that has left 300,000 seafarers stranded at sea and unable to be repatriated.

Describing the situation as reaching “farcical proportions”, chairman Dimitris Fafalios said Seafarer Employment Agreements had expired for about 35% to 40% of seafarers currently on ships.

Of these, 10% had served between 12 and 17 months, far beyond the nine month industry standard and in excess of international maritime labour convention limits.

Airlines’ unwillingness to make flights available between shipping destinations and crew source countries was one of two key bottlenecks, Mr Fafalios said.

The second bottleneck came from health and immigration authorities who failed to recognise United Nations protocols for crew changes, which designated them as key workers.

Mr Fafalios is the second high-profile shipping executive to publicly shame airlines for not doing enough to redress the crisis by expanding flights, and to target crewing agencies for a lack of vigilance over coronavirus-positive crew. 

Singapore Shipping Association executive director Michael Phoon said earlier this month that airlines were not doing enough and must schedule additional commercial flights to enable repatriation.

Intercargo reminded airlines that the shipping industry provided them with “great economic support” through seafarer, superintendent, specialist technician and surveyor travel before the pandemic saw countries invoke immigration and travel restrictions.

“Hundreds of thousands or even more than a million tickets annually provided a significant economic boost to airlines globally,” the release said.

“Intercargo reminds airlines not to forget seafarers during these difficult times.”

The association, which represents a quarter of the world’s dry bulk fleet, also called for crewing agents to be more vigilant when supplying replacement crew.

“Recent occurrences of Covid-19 positive crew being allowed to travel from their home countries cannot be condoned by Intercargo as it puts seafarers on board and civilians at risk,” said Mr Fafalios.

Intercargo vice-chairman Spyros Tarasis said problems lay with the airlines, visas and health authorities.

“Nothing is being done, and very soon the shipping industry itself may well be obliged/forced to stop the trading of cargoes essential for welfare and sustaining the smooth running of societies worldwide.”

In a setback for shipowners and shipmanagers, Singapore and Hong Kong  recently reimposed restrictive policies limiting crew changes after some seafarers tested positive, or falsified coronavirus tests. In Hong Kong publicity linking seafarers to a second outbreak of the virus intensified pressure on governments to tighten protocols that had enabled easier passage.

“It is not the rigorous controls that are impeding crew changes, it is the people,” Mr Phoon told Lloyd’s List in an earlier interview.

“There are (seafarers) who have declared they’re self-isolating but actually they’re not, they’re having a fun time partying at a pub and drinking before they board a ship and they bring the infection on board.

“They (policy makers) say that the companies should have a second layer of testing before they board the ship to catch them, but that is not the answer because the problem is the crew mentality.”

He added: “If I am a very responsible manning and crewing company and if you were due for a roster and to be signing on, I would need to make sure that you stay in isolation.

“I would check up on you. If you have a smartphone I would want you to turn on your location and I am going to call you every day to make sure you are where you say you are. And if you’re not, then you’re not rostered for duty, you lose your income.”

Lloyd’s List contacted the Geneva-based lobby group for commercial airlines, the International Air Transport Association on July 15, asking for a response to shipowners and shipmanagers’ concerns about flight co-ordination and communication. 

IATA has yet to respond to this email or subsequent phone or email messages.

Intercargo said countries who did not recognise seafarers as key workers bore responsibility for the inhumane situation at sea.

“Some governments are not facilitating the crew change even for their own citizens,’’ it said. “This includes imposing all possible restrictions on crew change in their home country, restricting flights and applying policies which do not allow seafarers to fly to foreign countries to join ships.

“It is a sad story and it can’t continue like this unless port states who export/import cargoes ensure that ships will not depart with seafarers serving over the Maritime Labour Convention limit.

“More and more countries are prohibiting crew change, though they welcome the cargoes the ships bring to support the welfare of their society.”

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