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Crew welfare crisis: Less than a third of seafarers repatriated

The UK government is hosting an international summit on July 9 to tackle what is emerging as the biggest ever threat to crew welfare

Measures to grant seafarers key-worker status have failed. There are 300,000 overdue crew to be replaced, with 100,000 already released, based on Intermanager member estimates

ONLY 30% of necessary crew changes are taking place despite many much-lauded measures to repatriate an estimated 300,000 exhausted seafarers whose contracts have expired but cannot leave their vessels.

Unco-operative authorities, country intake limits, and governments refusing to allow airlines to fly crews to and from their countries of origin continue to stymie crew changes against the backdrop of the coronavirus curbs.

“There is a lot of bullshit going on,” said Capt Kuba Syzmanski, director-general of shipmanager lobby group InterManager, whose members manage 30% of the world’s vessels and provide about 90% of crews.

He cited difficulties moving seafarers through the crucial hubs of the United Arab Emirates and Philippines even though both countries claimed to have established measures that facilitate transfers.

“For the past three weeks, the top guys in the UAE were saying ‘yeah, no problems, you can do the crew change’,” Capt Syzmanski told Lloyd’s List. “But the local guys at the borders were not allowing what the top guys were saying.

“What is amazing for us is that they are allowing tourists in, but they don’t allow seafarers in. They were allowing seafarers out. But you cannot sign somebody off if he is not relieved.”

The UK government is hosting an international summit on July 9 to tackle what is emerging as the biggest ever threat to crew welfare.

Measures to grant seafarers key-worker status have failed, leading to what many in the shipping industry describe as a growing humanitarian crisis at sea.

Non-government organisations, a multitude of shipping lobby groups, as well as United Nations maritime and labour organisations have failed to gain traction in their co-ordinated and widespread campaign to remove global travel restrictions that have stranded hundreds of thousands of the world’s 1.5m seafarers.

Singapore, one of the key crew change countries has been slow to respond, Capt Syzmanski said. Others like Qatar banned crew changes outright. 

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Seafarers please come with your cargo but when we need to do something for you, well, ‘no thank you’.”

There are 300,000 overdue crew to be replaced, with 100,000 already released, based on InterManager member estimates. About 40% of the world’s 330,000 Filipino officers and ratings can travel through Manila airport under a newly expanded corridor.

The Filipino government was allowing 1,200 overseas workers daily through the airport. Seafarers did not secure all of these allocated places and — on current numbers — some 10,000 to 12,000 crew would be dispatched each month, according to Capt Syzmanski. As many as 40,000 Filipino seafarers needed to transit through Manila over that period before the coronavirus situation began, he said.

“You get owners who will go to a port to land the crew but the poor crew cannot get on a plane to go home because the situation has changed,” said UK P&I Club loss prevention director Stuart Edmonston.

“You think that a seaport is open and has flights available but by the time you get to the airport the situation’s changed and crew find themselves not being able to go through.”

Capt Syzmanski said some countries, such as the US, had policies that insisted seafarers who disembarked returned to the vessel if their flight was cancelled or the vessel would have to delay departure. Others, such as India, were only now allowing charter flights in to relieve that country’s 80,000 seafarers.

Some transport corridors were working effectively, he said. Both Amsterdam and Berlin airports were open, allowing passage for Polish seafarers, for example, while Hong Kong also was allowing repatriation.

The potential for seafarer fatigue is weighing on P&I Clubs, with medical and mental health issues arising from seafarers’ inability to end their contracts and return to families. Many are working well beyond their nine-month contract period.

“If you are away for months and months over, you’re going to be mentally affected by it,” Mr Edmonston said. “I’m sure crew are mentally fatigued on ships. And will we see incidents if they do not go home soon in the future? That is a concern.”

Capt Syzmanski notes Singapore and the UAE are key hubs for crew changes because this is where ships typically stop to bunker.

He says: “These two countries are always trying to portray themselves as the biggest strength in the shipping industry, always saying to come and work with us. But when it came to testing times, they turned their backs on us. Big time. I hope the industry will remember that.”

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