Gard backs IMO call for seafarers’ key-worker status

Norway-based marine insurer Gard has joined the IMO in calling for the universal designation of seafarers as key workers to enable crew rotation.

Kunal Pathak, Loss Prevention Manager, Singapore, a Master Mariner who sailed for twelve years on oil tankers and bulk carriers, and VP Tim Howse, who a Master Mariner and Marine Engineer as well as an English solicitor who had sailed for 10 years on bulk carriers, tankers, container ships and cruise ships, wrote that before Covid-19, 200,000 seafarers would exchange every month. “The preparations would start as soon the manning office announced the name of the reliever and date of ‘sign off’. The packing of the bags, the reverse count down of the days left, the constant thoughts of loved ones and the eagerness to return to home life are all those things that made the whole process of signing off so exciting. The anticipation for the seafarer is second to none. The last day on board is another story – new clothes, cash advance (for the duty free shopping), the physical ‘signing off’ on all the documents, the hand-over notes and all those thoughts of the journey back home”. Pathak and Howse said that “only seafarers will be able to relate to the feeling of transition from a normal work life to a normal home life with both “normals” being diametrically opposite.”

Since the pandemic took hold, all had changed.

Signing off had become a highly complex process – nearly impossible in many cases – with most of the port states around the world keeping their borders closed to crew repatriation due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Seafarers have had to stay aboard their vessels for many more months than their original contracts required. This had left them frustrated, stressed, and fatigued.

Pathak and Howse noted that the current restrictions had also made it difficult, if not impossible, to get medical treatment ashore for seafarers. “All the while shipping companies and crewing agencies, local agents and P&I correspondents, industry and labour organizations and many more have scrambled to find a way through the bureaucracy.”

However, Pathak and Howse said that, while the recent events had exposed the vulnerability of the entire supply chain related to the crew care and repatriation, there were some lessons that had been learned. The most common theme was that the pandemic had brought the key industry players together for a common cause. “There have been some successes on a case by case, port by port basis but the shipping industry is global, and solutions should ideally be uniform”, they said.

Gard joined some 40 participants in a UN Covid-19 Task Force, along with UN agencies like IMO and WHO, and industry representatives in the shipping, the oil and gas, the ports, and the food and agriculture sectors. “We all shared details of the immediate challenges and ways of overcoming them. In Gard, we were seeing first-hand the hardship caused by crew being forced to stay on board and without access to doctors, even when urgent.”

The recommendations were sent to G7 and G20 leaders, through the UN, and the President of the General Assembly.  Many other agencies and industry bodies and labour organizations worked on the problem in parallel, and made similar recommendations. Pathak said that there had been “a big push across the industry to get political leaders to implement key worker status uniformly”.