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Shipping struggles to overcome political inertia as crew change crisis starts to bite

Industry agencies and major flags meet in crew crisis talks as already extended extensions to seafarer employment contracts are due to expire on June 16

A diplomatic battle is underway to win over international political support for crew change plans. Slow implementation from governments unwilling or unable to overcome bureaucratic blockages has left the vast majority of seafarers stranded at sea or stuck at home due to travel restrictions

DESPITE increasingly urgent industry interventions at senior government levels the shipping industry is struggling to break the bureaucratic logjam that has left tens of thousands of seafarers stranded at sea with already extended employment contracts about to expire and a looming legal crisis for the industry.

A diplomatic campaign is now being waged to publicly warn senior political figures of the imminent risk to global trade following the failure of a unified industry plan to facilitate crew changes to gain sufficient traction beyond the transport departments of international governments.

Meanwhile behind the scenes, major flag states, shipowner bodies, unions officials and industry agencies have been meeting privately to resolve the practical logistics of crew change and imminently expiring employment contracts globally.

Officials are racing to agree pragmatic solutions to the emergency extensions to many of the labour agreements governing seafarers’ contracts that expire on June 16.

Sources say that most major flags will consider expirations on a case by case basis from next week rather than issuing blanket extensions. But there is growing concern that a legal time bomb is being created by fatigued crew being left on board and growing unrest from unions increasingly unwilling to accept the force majeure arguments that have already seen contracts extended as crew start to seek formal support in getting off vessels and ending contracts. 

While Singapore, Hong Kong and a handful of ports have started to process seafarer changeovers, the vast majority of ports effectively remain closed to crew despite over 50 countries agreeing in principle to the 12-point industry plan to facilitate crew changes issued over a month ago.

Bureaucratic delays

In most cases countries remain mired in bureaucratic blockages due to the lack of co-ordination between immigration, visa agencies, and the general red tape of government departments lacking the infrastructure or direction to deal with the logistics of crew change amid new restrictions and lockdown protocols.

The problems are generally the mundanities of big government dealing with unprecedented upheaval — the lack of testing kits for crew, a logjam of personal protective equipment for staff and seafarers in port, shortages of people to process certification and slow interaction between departmental sign-offs where confusion over what is and is not permitted is rife. 

Co-ordinating ship arrival with the few remaining flights and an aviation sector in crisis is adding another layer of logistic complexity.

In one case reported to Lloyd’s List, a replacement crew of Ukranian seafarers arrived in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to replace another replacement crew who had been sent back because their visas could not be processed on arrival.  

While shipowners have had to accept that they are now paying three times the normal price to move a seafarer internationally, co-ordination between land-side agencies is at best problematic and even with the agreed protocols and paperwork in place changeovers are in many cases not happening.

Following the release of the 12-point industry plan to allow crew changes issued over a month ago, the initial response from governments was overwhelmingly positive. However, slow implementation of plans and lack of political traction at a senior enough level have left the vast majority of seafarers either stranded at sea or stuck at home due to travel restrictions.

Only 25% of the 400,000 seafarers due for changeover have been repatriated, Lloyd’s List has learned.

Public interventions from the International Maritime Organization and senior United Nations figures had supported the plans urging swift action, but the lack of implementation from governments has required a second round of statements suggesting that the initial calls have largely been overlooked.

The IMO secretary general again called for member states to give seafarers “key worker” status that would help facilitate crew changes on Tuesday.

This time, the agency bulked up with the UN Conference on Trade and Development for some additional diplomatic heft, issuing a joint statement urging the world to keep ships moving, ports open and trade flowing.

This very public push to overcome political inertia currently blocking crew-change facilitation plans has this week seen several high-profile mainstream media articles explicitly warning of a risk to global trade as senior industry officials seek to leverage the political fear factor and co-opt the support of governments that have so far been slow to recognise the severity of the mounting crew crisis.

Trade risk

While the issue has received some media coverage, industry figures report a general frustration with the lack of visibility of the issue, having struggled to get the message out beyond the echo chamber of industry forums.

Shipping is once again suffering from a lack of political visibility and has found itself well down the pecking order in terms of government priorities. The Financial Times front page and coverage in the Economist came courtesy of shipping’s few friends in high places.

Lord Sterling, the former chairman of the shipping line P&O, has been privately counselling industry officials to stress the trade risk angle and is understood to have brokered the coverage while pushing the message himself at cabinet level in the UK’s political establishment.

Most other governments lack such inroads and while transport departments have in many cases heard and accepted industry interventions, their own recommendations have in many cases failed to percolate up the political food chain.   

Nevertheless, the media attention has been welcomed as a necessary part of the campaign to cure this case of sea-blindness and secure political support, but there is a more delicate process of diplomacy required in the negotiations at industry level where tensions on board vessels are running high and unions are being urged to act.

In a private meeting this week, senior figures from the International Transport Workers’ Federation, International Chamber of Shipping, the International Maritime Employers' Council, Liberian, Panamanian and Marshall Islands flags discussed what happens after the extended crew contracts expire next week.

While formal positions were not taken, it is believed that all the major flags have indicated they will not be extending contracts on a fleet-wide basis and instead will take a view on a case by case basis. Extensions will only be granted in cases where there is a clear plan to repatriate crew at the next available opportunity and owners will be expected to make clear their plans to facilitate that changeover.

Officials from each of the flags present in the meeting have said they are now not prepared to keep extending and while nobody is willing to jeopardise trade flows, they argue urgent political action is now required. 

“We’re doing everything possible, but we can’t keep kicking this can down the road,” said one senior flag official who attended the meeting.

To date the industry has worked with an unprecedented level of unity and cross sector collaboration. As one union official put it: “We all left our guns at the door and have worked together to find solutions.” 

However, that delicate and arguably unprecedented union is already starting to show signs of tension as the ITF struggles to quell growing unrest amongst members demanding action.

Industry officials, shipping companies and the ITF all recognise that the levels of anxiety and stress on board the vessels is becoming a safety and mental health issue.

But with the contracts about to expire the concern is that seafarers will start to demand they be allowed to leave the vessel and the ITF will be duty bound to support them, throwing the weight and machinery of the unions behind their requests.

Another concern is one of criminal liability for masters who have been notified by their crew that due to fatigue and stress they are unable to perform their jobs safely. In the event of an incident, which all senior officials agree is now running at an increased risk due to fatigue, the liability of the master and potential criminal action is going to create a serious industry issue with no obvious answers to deal with it.

What might otherwise sound like union sabre-rattling is now a shared concern across industry players.

However, even in this unified approach to call for action, there are sensitivities at play preventing some from talking more openly.

Lloyd’s List understands that several of the major shipowners are privately pushing for union intervention on the issue in order to force a political response.

Publicly the message is that shipping will keep world trade flowing, but privately there is now an urgent feeling that without political intervention the crew change crisis could start to hold back a recovery.

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