Key Worker Plea as Seafarers Face Stark Choice

The maritime world is on collision course over the treatment of the world’s seafarers amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

It comes as the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping said seafarers had to be put on the list of key workers given their role in securing global supply chains.

Guy Platten was speaking during a webinar, hosted by Windward Maritime Analytics, on protecting maritime borders against COVID-19. It comes as the world’s shipowners push to extend the contracts of crews which will see them on board vessels for a year.

The move comes as the owners say they are unable to move other seafarers around the world to relieve current crews due to travel bans and quarantine rules in maritime nations.

Earlier this week crew specialist Danica Crewing Services urged ship operators to exercise caution when making crew changeovers while the coronavirus outbreak continues.

Responding to industry calls for seafarers to be given special travel dispensation,  Henrik Jensen, managing director of the firm, warned that crew face a bigger risk of catching the virus while they travel to and from postings using public transport networks. He added the better option was to extend contracts where possible.

Mr Jensen said: “I understand why the argument that seafarers should continue to travel to and from vessels for regular crew changeovers. However, with a potential 100,000 seafarers transiting each month, I do not believe this is the best approach at this present time.”

“Some vessel operators think it is stressful for crew to stay onboard for longer and better for them to go home – I disagree. That may well be the case for crew who have completed postings of more than nine months, such as many Filipino ratings do.  However, for those with contract lengths of four to seven months, or less, I think it is not a problem to stay longer, rather than risk becoming infected as they transit home, or to jeopardise the health of those remaining by potentially bringing infected seafarers on to the vessel in replacement,” he explained, pointing out that the Maritime Labour Convention does allow a maximum term of 12 months at sea.

Mr Jensen continued: “No commercial vessels are equipped to deal with a crew member seriously ill from coronavirus Covid-19 who may be in need of ventilation and intensive care. Help could be very far away if the vessel is on a long voyage – and even may not be readily available in port. Secondly, if the virus comes onboard then it will almost certainly affect several persons, if not the entire crew.  Will the ship then be able to operate in a safe way? How can vessel operators provide medical care to an entire crew far out at sea?

“In my opinion, the safest way – although inconvenient and potentially stressful for the individual seafarer – is to halt the crew changes until the situation is under better control.”

“These are difficult times and we must all pull together and make sacrifices to help each other. The world owes seafarers a great debt in keeping international trade – especially food and medicines – flowing,” said Mr Jensen.

However Mr Platten said that moves by owners to extend crews’ contracts which would see them on board for a year were simply not a solution for any period of time.

“There are an estimated 200,000 seafarers which need to move around the world to relieve crews,” he added. “At the moment seafarers have stepped up to the plate and they have agreed to extend their contracts while solutions can be found to enable the transfer of crews. Governments have to put seafarers on the key worker list, given their role in ensuring the global supply chain. Doing so will enable systems to move them to where they are needed to be put in place.

“This crisis will last for many months and the situation as it stands is not sustainable.”

He added that many ports have been putting in quarantine measures which restricted crew’s ability to leave a vessel.

However, he said that it was the crews that were in danger of being infected by shore-based staff rather than the other way round.

“There have been no reports of any seafarers contracting coronavirus outside of the cruise sector,” he added. “There should be a restriction on shore based staff on board and a reduction in any interaction between the shore staff and the crews.”