Port of Rotterdam

Over 400,000 seafarers trapped at sea as crew change crisis nears breaking point

More than 400,000 seafarers remain trapped at sea on more than 60,000 cargo ships, as calls to end the ongoing crew change crisis remain unanswered by national governments.

Illustration; Image by Navingo

Another 400,000 are unable to join ships, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on travel and transit have severely impacted seafarers.

Overly fatigued and mentally exhausted seafarers are being asked to continue to operate ships, well beyond their original contracts, without proper rest and far away from their loved ones.

“We need cooperation and commitment from all Member States, to recognize seafarers as key workers, exempting them from travel restrictions, and implement the recommended framework of protocols for safe crew changes to find ways to get seafarers off and onto ships,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said during an event held on the margins of the UN General Assembly High Level Week.

Lim pointed out that action was needed now, as the movement of energy, food and medicine in these unprecedented times depends on seafarers.

“They should not be the collateral victims in this pandemic. Seafarers deliver for us – and now we need to deliver for them,” he stressed.

A sombre message was delivered during the event by Captain Hedi Marzougui, who was in command of a vessel between December 2019 and May 2020, stressing that the basic human rights of seafarers were neglected.

“Not knowing when or if we will be returning home brings a severe mental toll on my crew and myself,” Captain Marzougui said.

“I would encourage each and every one of you to think of how you would feel, if you had to work every day, for 12 hours, with no weekends, without seeing your loved ones, and trapped at sea. Now add that you have to do that with no idea of when you will be repatriated.”

Speaking during the event, Henriette Hallberg Thygesen, chief executive officer of fleet and strategic brands at A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, said that there was little concrete action over the past few months there despite pledges made.

“We need actions now, immediate and real, from governments and national authorities,” she said.

Marc Engel Chief Supply Chain Officer at Unilever PLC echoed the sentiment of urgency to resolve the crisis and act immediately.

“When the ships stop, so does everything else. It is important that we wake up to the fact that we are now close to an entirely avoidable breaking point in the global supply chain- a crisis that would have a ripple effect on the economy,” he said, urging nations to overcome bureaucracy and inertia holding back the collective action.

The situation has led to an unprecedented level of cooperation within the industry, in particular among industry associations like IMO, ICS, ILO, and the ITF who have joined forces in raising awareness about the crisis and developing solutions and protocols to alleviate the crisis.

Unfortunately, the industry has had little success in resolving the situation as the international community failed to take decisive action and allow seafarers to be exempt from national travel restrictions designating them essential workers.

Apart from several exemptions, there hasn’t been much willingness to act on the matter.

One of the reasons has been the very the complexity of the crisis.

Another argument for the inaction of governments also seems to be the fact that shipping is an industry that preferred staying in the shadows for such a long period of time, that it doesn’t have the mechanisms or alliances strong enough to achieve results.

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Some maritime authorities have started to take matters into their own hands, by adopting a less flexible approach and starting to detain ships breaching the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said that starting from October 1 2020, it would revert to the previous compliance and enforcement approach. Hence, seafarers who served continuously on board a vessel for more than 11 months, and less than 13 months without taking leave, will have to be repatriated before they have served a maximum continuous period of 14 months.

Due to COVID-19, some seafarers have been stuck at sea for 17 months, 6 months longer than allowed under the MLC.