Bangladesh declares seafarers key workers

An employee of a boat terminal is wearing a protective suit while monitoring the terminal as it reopens. Credit: Piyas Biswas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The government of Bangladesh has declared seafarers as ‘key workers’ to facilitate the movement of seafarers and crew change during COVID-19, taking into consideration the important role they are playing to keep supply chains intact.

By declaring seafarers as essential workers, Bangladesh can grant travel exemptions to seafarers throughout the country and special treatment at immigration points in airports and land ports.

Shipping officials said the government has responded to calls from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Labour Organization (ILO), and the European Union, which recently inquired about the key worker status in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s shipping secretary Mohammed Mezbah Uddin Chowdhury said his ministry began work last week to recognise seafarers as key workers so they will be able to enjoy increased facilities, travel priorities, and waivers in requirements, including quarantine. “The formal procedure to this regard is under way,” he said.

Similar to other countries, Bangladeshi seafarers also remained stuck in ships and ports across the world and face problems signing-on and signing-off amid the pandemic, Chowdhury said. According to the country’s maritime regulator, the Department of Shipping (DoS), Bangladesh has about 15,000 seafarers who are working in foreign ships. The seafarers are leading a terrible life staying on board for long period and being far away from their families, he added.

“If we declare seafarers as key workers, Bangladeshi crew members may get facilities in sign-on and sign-off in ports of other countries, which also offer [the] same status to seafarers,” Chowdhury said.

Despite these latest developments, crew change in Bangladeshi ports has continued while the virus spread worldwide. A number of special flights were operated from Bangladesh to repatriate crew to their countries in absence of regular flights that remained suspended since late March. On 1 September, about 29 Indian crew, who had been stranded in Bangladesh after signing off from vessels during the pandemic, were flown home through a special flight. The DoS informed the EU that about 200 crew perform crew changes each week through Bangladeshi ports by following health-related guidelines. Seafarers were also allowed to move in COVID-19-linked red and yellow zones (Bangladesh has identified areas/wards/sub-districts as red, yellow, or green zones based on the density of COVID-19 infections to restrict movement of people and contain the spread of the virus) without any hindrances, it added.

President of Bangladesh Merchant Marine Officers’ Association Captain Anam Chowdhury stressed the importance of seafarers during the pandemic period who are working as front-line fighters to keep the global supply chain unbroken. Usually, during normal times sea routes carry 92% of cargoes; while in the COVID-19 period, 97% of cargoes were being moved, he said. This is due to connectivity through rail, road, and air travel being suspended.

Now that seafarers will have key worker status in the country, it is hoped that even more crew change will be able to occur and the essential supplies will continue to reach Bangladesh. “I’ve visited a vessel this week where most of the crew [were] found staying on board 12–15 months compared to 6–9 months in the normal days,” Captain Anam Chowdhury said. “Since seafarers were not declared as key workers, getting visa for us has become difficult,” he said, adding that once the government recognises crew as key workers, providing visa will be mandatory for other countries, such as the Middle Eastern countries where crew have faced difficulties attaining visas.

The governments, in this case, will also have to create safe passage so that seafarers can sign-on and sign-off easily, he added.

Bangladeshi seafarers annually bring about USD500 million to the country, he added.