Governments from across the world have pledged to urgently resolve issues for seafarers that have arisen due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the critical need to continue conducting crew changes throughout the world.
At least 200,000 seafarers are estimated to require immediate repatriation in addition to a similar number of seafarers that urgently need to join their ships in order to allow the world’s internationally trading vessels to continue to operate safely.
Although seafarers’ tours of duty cannot continue to be extended and need to be kept to a duration of less than 12 months, as set out but the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006, it is estimated that only about 25% of normal crew changes have taken place since March 2020.
In addition to humanitarian and crew welfare concerns, and issues of regulatory compliance, this presents an increasing risk that fatigue and mental health issues could lead to serious maritime accidents.
The uncertainty around a possible second wave of COVID-19 underscores the need for swift actions without further delay to allow crew changes and to avoid further consequences to the already fragile global supply chain.
International Maritime Organisation (IMO)’s secretary-general, Kitack Lim, said at the UK-hosted virtual Maritime Summit on Crew Changes: “It is time to act for seafarers. Safe ship operations and crew wellbeing should not be compromised.
“The humanitarian crisis seafarers face has implications for all of us, for the world economy and for the safety of life at sea and the environment.”
Representatives from the governments of the UK, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, UAE and the US have made pledges to try and rectify this.
The governments encouraged all IMO states to designate seafarers as key workers in order to facilitate a safe and unhindered movement for embarking or disembarking a vessel.
They aim to engage nationally, multilaterally and bilaterally, in discussions about implementation of the recommended framework of protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during COVID-19 pandemic and to consider the legal possibilities for accepting internationally recognised documentation.
Additionally, working in conjunction with health, immigration and other ministries, the governments will review the necessity of any restrictions that may continue to apply at a national and/or local level to the movement and travel of seafarers for the purpose of conducting ships’ crew changes.
The governments are also considering temporary measures, where possible under relevant law, the possibility of waivers, exemptions or other relaxations from any visa or documentary requirements which might normally apply to seafarers.
They have urged all IMO members to take any necessary measures to ensure seafarers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic can enjoy safe crew changes as well as repatriation to their home countries or to their place of ordinary residence.
Global shipping line Maersk has prioritised the initiation of safe crew changes, bearing in mind local regulations, travel options and minimal risk to current future crew onboard and their families.
Currently, there are 6,600 Maersk seafarers aboard vessels and more than third of them are serving well beyond their contract length and still have no indication of when they can return home.
Soren Skou, CEO of A.P. Moller – Maersk, said: “The world’s seafarers are vital to the global economy and in keeping supply chains running.
“Our colleagues have been working non-stop since the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year and their safety is of paramount importance.”
Large numbers of Maersk’s vessel crews are Indian and Philippine nationals and are subject to strict COVID-19 restrictions in their home companies and many international flights are suspended or limited.
A solution the shipping line has suggested would require approvals for flights linking major global ports to the home air hubs of India and the Philippines so vessel crews would be able to rotate.
The shipping line has urged authorities to engage with it in a constructive dialogue to facilitate crew changes under the current critical circumstances, ensuring minimal risk to its crews and their families.