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Seafarers close to breaking point, warns shipmanager

Thousands of crew stranded on board vessels could quit when their contracts expire, warns Bjørn Højgaard of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group. While crew have responded responsibly to the crisis so far, tightening crew change policies could put further strain on their mental health

With 300,000 crew still stranded at sea amid tightening crew change policies, the risk is rising that they will refuse to renew their contracts

THOUSANDS of seafarers stranded at sea with expired contracts are close to quitting, according to one shipmanager.

The situation is being exacerbated by secondary outbreaks of coronavirus that is forcing crew change policies to be tightened, particularly in the key changeover hubs of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

“Seafarers have been very responsible not to disrupt the employment of the ship and the movement of goods, but we are getting very, very close to a place where I think crew will refuse to sign the next extension of contract,” said Anglo-Eastern Univan Group chief executive Bjørn Højgaard.

“As this new wave of infections have hit everywhere and especially Hong Kong and Singapore, in response you’ve seen a tightening of the rules for the first time since this started.’’

Mr Højgaard, who is also chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, told Lloyd’s List of the complicated, chaotic and costly measures taking place to repatriate and replace crew.

“As long as things were easing up, albeit slowly, I think seafarers were hopeful that we are getting there, it’s clearing up and we will be going home,” he said.

“But now that we have got to the point where it has gone the other way in a couple of places, you are getting extremely close to the point where people say ‘no I can’t do this’, simply because they’re stretched beyond their ability to do things.”

Every location came with its own set of restrictions and logistical puzzles, he said.

Anglo-Eastern currently has 16,000 seafarers on board the 650 vessels it manages, with about 1,600 to 1,700 crew overdue to leave on some 100 ships.

That number had been steadily falling since May from 7,000 seafarers with expired contracts, as countries eased lockdown restrictions or implemented friendlier quarantine and other health and immigration regulations.

The fragility of seafarers’ mental health is now front-of-mind for owners and managers, amid growing concerns for vessel safety. Many crew due to leave five months ago could soon be violating international labour conventions to which a number of flags, owners or managers are signatory.

“The situation at sea is horrific,” said one master who just returned to his European country of origin this week. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Being master of the ship, I am not allowed to show my feelings. Everything, I have to accept it with a smile. My crew started going crazy, I mean just psycho. It is not at all a good situation.”

Only a third of the crew on his ship were able to leave in the end, because of shortages of available flights, while another joiner tested positive for coronavirus as he was flying out, further delaying the changeover.

An estimated 300,000 crew are stranded at sea, with a further 300,000 unemployed and unable to replace them, affecting some 40% of the world’s 1.5m seafarers.

The Mission to Seafarers’ Happiness Index, published this week, revealed there was frustration, concern and stress building up, and warned of a rising mental health crisis.

Not one Anglo-Eastern employee had been infected while on board a ship, said Mr Højgaard, urging others in the maritime sector to treat those who had tested positive for the coronavirus before they joined a ship with support and not stigma.

The numbers of crew rostering on and testing positive before boarding is rising globally, with cases not only in Hong Kong and Singapore, and concerns aired that manning agents are not strictly vetting crew before they fly out to join a vessel.

A Mumbai-based crewing agent told Lloyd’s List: “There is a strong need to examine the crew for the virus before they board a flight or ship. However, it is not a standard operating protocol followed in all ports in India and also there are no clear orders on who should carry out the tests — the shipmanager or the recruitment and placement services.

“Moreover, it takes almost a week for the test results to be out and the crew have to sometimes join the vessel within a week, which makes it impossible for any tests to be performed.”

Some shipmanagers and owners are only hiring crew with negative tests, but as it is not required in many regions, smaller operators are not testing, according to another New Dehli-based agent.

“All countries where crew changes are happening have their own protocols and they also test the crew members before they are allowed to join ships.

“We provide services to almost all big names in the industry and we are only hiring crew who have [had their] swab test done recently.”

India, the Philippines and China are the biggest suppliers of crew.

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