Day of the Seafarer 2020: It’s time for the EU to resolve crew change crisis

On the Day of the Seafarer 2020, European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) are calling upon EU institutions and member states to start acting to resolve the current crew change crisis.


Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, seafarers around the world have been facing difficulties in being replaced by other crew and getting repatriated.

Specifically for Europe, the very limited capacity to issue visas to enter the Schengen area will be a major bottleneck once travel restrictions are lifted. Yet, despite the high level of awareness, the issue persists.

“In some cases, seafarers have now been confined to ships for months beyond their contractual time at sea,” Estelle Brentnall, the ETF’s Head of Maritime, said.

 “Hundreds of thousands of seafarers should be part of crew changes at this moment – that means hundreds of thousands of lives that are directly affected by the inaction and lack of coordination of states around the globe. Hundreds of thousands of maritime workers who are unable to spend time with their loved ones, or, on the other hand, are unable to get to work.”

Travel restrictions have been restricting seafarers’ movement in other ways as well. In addition to not being able to go home after their contract ends, they are often denied shore leave or in some cases have trouble getting medical treatment. Fundamental human and workers’ rights are at stake, and blaming the situation on the pandemic will not do, according to ECSA and ETF.

Despite the crisis, seafarers made sure the goods were delivered. Despite the crisis, they worked. It is unacceptable that despite the crisis, states cannot find ways to get them home. Providing seafarers with a way to return home, to get medical care and to take shore leave, is basic decency, the two associations believe.

“Seafarers are the 2 million workers on whom the global trade depends, working on ships that carry more than 80% of global trade by volume. They’ve fulfilled their part of their contract. Now, governments need to ensure that they are, in turn, respected,” Martin Dorsman, ECSA’s Secretary General, commented.

“On the Day of the Seafarer, we call upon EU institutions and member states to immediately take coordinated steps to ensure seafarers can return home, have access to shore leave and medical treatment,” ECSA and ETF pointed out.

Both ETF and ECSA have already detailed actions to be taken to facilitate the issuing of visas to enter the Schengen area, and urged EU member states to facilitate crew changes and provide medical care. At the same time, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has endorsed several protocols to help in the process. Effective and coordinated action is long overdue, the social partners concluded.

Related Article

Euronav: Status of keyworkers would enable crew changes

In a separate statement, European tanker company Euronav — the largest independent crude oil tanker company in the world — acknowledged “incredible dedication” of all seafarers around the world on their day of recognition.

“The board and management of Euronav NV expresses their tremendous gratitude towards seafarer colleagues who have been and still are undertaking such enormous efforts by ensuring trade flows and global commerce since restrictions regarding COVID-19 began impacting their life at sea,” Hugo De Stoop, CEO of Euronav, commented.

“We do so in highlighting the annual Day of the Seafarer today celebrating its 10th anniversary. However, this issue is one in minor since thousands of heroes at sea are confined onboard due to travel restrictions. With an overdue contract, unable to change crew, these seafarers have poor outlooks on when they will be united with their loved ones. We call upon all politicians and decision-makers embracing and implementing the IMO campaign to get keyworker status for seafarers which enables crew changes now!”

Belgium-based Euronav said it fully supports the IMO initiative – the Day of the Seafarer — and calls upon member states to recognize seafarers as keyworkers and provide them with the support they so badly need during the pandemic. Many seafarers have been away from home for months and are unsure when they will be able to return home due to travel restrictions.

The tanker operator added it will continue to work with all relevant authorities to highlight the immediate need to ease such restrictions on seafarers.

UK government commits to protect seafarers

The United Kingdom is facing the COVID-19 crisis after it officially left the EU. The country is now in a transition period until January 2021, which means it is still bound to the rules in the European Union. This is also impacting the UK shipping industry and its seafarers.

Today, the government announced it will host the first international summit on the impact of Covid-19 on crew changes next month, bringing together UN, political and business leaders from across the globe.

Led by UK Maritime Minister Kelly Tolhurst, the event will take place virtually and will be an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on the global shipping industry, and what governments and industry must do to protect the welfare of crew workers around the world.

Since the pandemic began, the UK helped more than 7,000 crew members get home, regardless of nationality or circumstance.

With many countries shutting down borders, it is now estimated there are more than 1.2 million seafarers at sea at any one time and currently 200,000 seafarers due to change over, including up to 2,000 from the UK.

To ensure their swift repatriation, and to safeguard workers’ mental health, the Maritime Minister Kelly Tolhurst wrote to the IMO, the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation at the start of the outbreak on 23 March pressing that all states follow the UK’s work in repatriating workers regardless of their nationality or employment.

The UK has remained open for seafarers to come and either stay on vessels, go ashore, take shore leave or be repatriated, abiding by PHE requirements and social distancing.