A million seafarers set to be hit by crew change crisis

In what has been described as the most serious crisis facing shipping logistics since containerisation was introduced, it was estimated by the International Chamber of Shipping that the crew change crisis that caught shipowners and ISM managers by surprise, and unable to cope with travel regulations brought in by many countries in response Covid-19 travel restrictions, could soon affect a million seafarers.

ICS secretary general Guy Platten warned a UN-convened event yesterday that governments had effectively created floating prisons.

ICS estimated that there were now 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea, while a further 400,000 were ashore waiting to relieve them. He said that they were often getting little or no pay from shipowners. Platten predicted that a million seafarers could be affected in the months to come.

“Without resolution we could start to see a logjam which will impact each and every country in their ability to trade globally. The shipping industry is very pragmatic, and we are adept at finding solutions however this is one issue we absolutely cannot resolve without the help of governments,” Platten said.

Major brands including Unilever, Heineken and Carrefour have woken up to the danger to their supply chains and are beginning to flex their muscles in seeking solutions to get crew moving more easily around the world. To date the “pressure” of the shipping industry has rested on appeals rather than threats, be they veiled or not. But, with most governments continuing to put domestic concerns at Covid-19 transmission ahead of worries about global trade, the situation appeared to be worsening to an extent that appeals might be seen to not be enough.

Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), was also critical of governments’ inaction to alleviate the crew change crisis. Although many ISM managers are unhappy at the terminology. The ITF is continuing to term the situation as one of forced labour and modern slavery, with seafarers are increasingly forced to stay onboard working against their will, even if the ISM managers are trying (but failing) to get them off.

“It is deeply shameful that we have reached the unfortunate six-month mark in this crisis, with no end in sight. By not giving seafarers pragmatic exemptions as key workers to get to and from ships, governments are consigning seafarers to being slaves on what many call their floating prisons. Unless we get these increasingly fatigued seafarers off, there will be more accidents – there will be oil spills on our shores and deaths on our seas”, warned Cotton.

Cotton said that all companies had a responsibility to use their leverage to demand urgent government intervention to end the crisis.

France has proposed compiling a global UN list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes, while Kenya has called for sharing costs globally for a rapid testing plan for major ports.

ISM managers specialize in recruiting seafarers from a relatively small proportion of the globe – the Philippines, Ukraine and India are notable sources of labour. The Philippines is the world’s leading supplier of merchant seafarers and in recent months it has tried to position itself as a hub for international crew changes. It has opened a molecular Covid-19 testing laboratory for seafarers in Manila’s South Harbour. This has a daily testing capacity of around 2,000 and a 24 to 48-hour turnaround time for results. However, previously the norm was to fly the seafarers to the ship they were due to board. Requiring all ships with Filipino crew to get to the Philippines to take the seafarers on board would not be practical, even in these days of super cheap oil.

However, it is practical in certain cases. Japanese owners in particular have been rerouting ships to the Philippines. Japan relies on the Philippines for around 75% of its crewing needs and has said it will be sending at least three ships a day for the coming month for crew changes in the country. In the past four months, almost 1,000 ships have called at the Port of Manila for crew change.