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From the News Desk: Crewing crisis is risk to global supply chain

Despite perilous warnings over safety and threats to trade flows, shipping cannot seem to get enough political momentum to find a solution

Up to 1m seafarers could be impacted by the political impasse over crew changes as the UN is warned that a failure to act could result in a humanitarian crisis and risk the safety of global trade

GOVERNMENT inaction over the ongoing crew change crisis could result in as many as 1m seafarers either stuck on ships or on shore waiting to relieve them, the United Nations has been warned.

International Chamber of Shipping secretary-general Guy Platten told a UN event on maritime crew changes, taking place on World Maritime Day, that around 400,000 seafarers are currently estimated to be working beyond their original contracts with a further 400,000 waiting ashore, often with little or no pay.

“If this continues, we could well see a million seafarers adversely affected in the coming months. This is unsustainable,” said Mr Platten, adding that seafarers cannot extend their tours of duty indefinitely.

International Transport Workers’ Federation general secretary Stephen Cotton told the event that seafarers feared blacklisting by employers if they complained about a situation “bordering on forced labour”.

The shipping ministers of Canada, France, Panama, the Philippines and Kenya joined calls to class seafarers as key workers, as did representatives of A.P. Moller-Maersk and Unilever.

The dry bulk market is one area of trade that has been severely impacted by the lack of crew change options, with a significant number of crews serving on board well past their contract expiry dates. There have been several reports of strikes on ships. 

As well as safety fears, there have also been warnings that the situation could help fuel a spike in maritime crime, with strategic intelligence firm Herminus suggesting that the crew change restrictions could present an opportunity for organised criminals to form relationships with stranded seafarers.

But despite this pessimistic outlook, and even an intervention by Pope Francis, shipping does not seem to be able to get enough political traction among world leaders to get a resolution to the problem, leaving the industry to come up with the answers themselves.

Columbia Shipmanagement’s Mark O’Neil told a recent Capital Link conference that there is no clear answer, but communication with seafarers is vital.

“We, as employers, have to be conscious of that and educate, communicate, and identify with the crew to say: ‘Yes, you have been on board 10 months but you are safer on board the vessel than if we dropped you off at a port but you can’t get home from there,’” he said. “You have to bear with us. We are doing everything we possibly can.”

Ports are adjusting their rules around crew changes in response to the changing nature of the pandemic around the world.

Last week, Singapore relaxed certain controls such as introducing a shorter quarantine period for members coming from Brunei or New Zealand — reduced now to seven days from the previous 14 days.

A crew member must now obtain a negative coronavirus test result not more than 72 hours, rather than 48 hours, prior to departure flight to Singapore as requested earlier, the Maritime and Port Authority said in a notice.

However, China has tightened crew controls following concern about the number of imported cases. New regulations announced by Beijing state that all arriving sign-on crew on international trading vessels must test negative for the virus.

The measures target ships that have conducted crew changes in the past 14 days before calling at Chinese ports.

Seafarers involved must receive a swab test at sites either appointed or approved by China’s overseas embassies or consulates, within the three days before embarkment, said the authorities.

And the shipping companies or agents must submit copies of the negative testing results when they prepare for the vessel entry. Violation against the rules and the relevant laws in China “may lead to restrictions on the entry, departure or operation of the vessel involved”.

Finally, 17 crew on board the bulk carrier Patricia Oldendorff (IMO: 9464584) were confirmed to have contracted coronavirus earlier this week. It is anchored off Western Australia’s north coast.

The master of the Liberia-flagged, 114,753 dwt vessel notified authorities at Port Hedland when two crew members fell ill and later tested positive.

More cases were later confirmed. Of those, seven crew are still on board the vessel, 10 are in hotel quarantine and another four have tested negative.

Read more about the crewing crisis in our hot topic section here.

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