We have read many articles, extolling the virtues of Seafarers who are considered the backbone of the shipping industry and how they are important to the industry etc and rightfully so.
However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, these Seafarers are facing significant challenges with extended service on board, unable to go ashore for a bit of fresh air after many months at sea, unable to be relieved of their duties and go home to be with their loved ones among others.
This is despite international maritime compliance regulations which require Seafarers to be changed on a regular basis from ships they work in to ensure safety, crew health, welfare, and the prevention of fatigue.
There have been calls from many quarters for appropriate action to be taken to address these issues faced by Seafarers.
On the 5th of May, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) released a circular entitled “Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Recommended framework of protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.
The aim of the circular is to facilitate safe crew changeovers amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. This 61-page document details the safe measures and best practices through which companies can arrange for crew changes.
Largely affected are seafarers in the Philippines (40,000), India (20,000), Ukraine (15,000) and China (10,000). The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Maritime Employers Council (IMEC) have found that 150,000 seafarers are in need of crew change by the 15th of May 2020.
However, since the crew change process involves a lot of parties, a great deal of synergy and cooperation is required to ensure safety and success during such times.
The Secretary-General of the IMO, Mr.Kitack Lim stated that the “current situation is unsustainable for the safety and wellbeing of ship crew and the safe operation of maritime trade”.
This recommended framework of protocols was proposed by a broad cross-section of global industry associations in consultative status with the Organization representing the maritime transportation sector such as ICS, IAPH, BIMCO, IFSMA, INTERTANKO, P&I Clubs, CLIA, INTERCARGO, InterManager, IPTA, IMCA, INTERFERRY, FONASBA, ITF, and WSC with inputs from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Representatives of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) highlighted their work in leading a call for “hub” airports and seaports to be established, so that crew changes could take place more easily.
Work is ongoing with governments, port authorities, health authorities, and others to develop protocols for crew changes and crew movements.
In a Press Release dated the 6th of May, Guy Platten, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said: “We have seen from the heroes at sea shoutout that seafarers are doing their bit to keep trade flowing. We stand ready to support our seafarers and we are working with political leaders so that they can steer a steady course and allow safe crew changes to take place.
The problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex. So, we have stepped up and done the homework and developed the protocols. We are now working with governments to implement this roadmap.
Seafarers continue to work really hard, day-in, day-out, and far away from loved ones, but if we are not able to free our seafarers from their COVID-19 lockdown we could start to see disruption to trade and more importantly we increase the risk of accident and occurrences of mental health issues. Putting this off is no longer an option.”
Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said: “Today seafarers’ unions, industry and the ILO and IMO are jointly calling on governments worldwide to put an end to hardships faced by the 150,000 seafarers currently stranded and pave a way for them to return home.
This is about governments recognising the critical role that seafarers play in global supply chains, recognising them as key workers, and providing immediate and consistent exceptions from COVID-19 restrictions to allow crew changeovers.
International seafarers are bearing the burden first-hand as governments turn a blind eye to the ‘forgotten sector’. The ITF, ICS, and IMO have a clear message, governments cannot continue with a mentality of out of sight, out of mind, and we strongly urge governments to use this roadmap to act now before we suffer more serious consequences.”
During a virtual IMO-industry meeting hosted by IMO (30 April), The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) highlighted the efforts of IACS member surveyors to continue to certify ships for compliance with international treaty and class requirements, sometimes using techniques such as remote surveying where this was feasible.
This another matter that requires due care and attention in light of the current situation. When surveyors do go onboard, the provision of personal protective equipment is critical.
The Secretary-General has expressed support for these protocols and has urged its implementation. Accordingly, Member States and international organizations have been invited to disseminate these protocols among the relevant national authorities who are responsible for maritime issues, health, customs, immigration, border control, seaport, and civil aviation.
This coming together of forces and streamlined dissemination of information is the need of the hour and sheds light on the collaborative efforts that are taking place across the maritime ecosystem with a view to improving the conditions and providing relief to the thousands of affected seafarers across the globe.