Desperate times call for radical measures to end crew change crisis

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Tanya Blake, SAS editor. Credit: IHS Markit

The crew change humanitarian crisis must be resolved now. Radical action is needed by the maritime industry and its supply chain.

As I write, it has been six months since the UK, where I live, introduced lockdown measures. Every day life has changed in ways that few would have predicted when 2020 began. However, as Jacqueline Smith, maritime co-ordinator of the International Transport Workers’ Federation wrote for the November edition of SAS, while those of us onshore may have had to adapt and suffer from seeing our loved ones less or having certain freedoms curbed, this is something seafarers are used to enduring.

Yet what we are asking them to handle right now is unacceptable; how can it be that hundreds of thousands of seafarers are still stuck on vessels they have been on since the beginning of the pandemic? Many have worked far beyond their contracts or are being coerced to sign new ones, while others are forced to accept pay cuts. Meanwhile, seafarers ashore who are unable to get on board vessels struggle to make ends meet.

All our calls and urgent pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Governments have asserted they will do more, but little has improved. Declaring seafarers ‘key workers’ in name alone does not mean they are making it easy to get crew in and out of their countries.

It remains to be seen whether the International Maritime Organization’s attempts at the General Assembly of the United Nations to call on governments once more to take “swift action” will do any more to resolve this humanitarian crisis.

Some port state controls (PSCs) in Australia are enacting the Maritime Labour Convention regulation to enforce crew who have worked over their contracts to be repatriated, but once off the vessels local state travel rules make it difficult or impossible for them to get home. The UK PSCs have made an example of some owners by detaining vessels on the grounds for late payment of wages and expired seafarer employment agreements, but on a large scale things remain the same.

One hopeful glimmer in recent weeks has been the news that major consumer companies, including Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Heineken, have signed an open letter calling for measures to allow more crew changes at ports.

The situation is desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. More major consumer companies must follow suit. As benefactors of the shipping industry and the hard work of seafarers, it is their moral duty to ensure they are not allowing crew’s rights to be flouted and their wellbeing ignored.

In fact, why not take a step further and stop shipping their products to countries that are not allowing crew changes and effectively benefiting from forced labour? When consumers can no longer get their products, governments may finally sit up and listen.

There have also been suggestions to penalise owners for not doing enough to repatriate crew by protection and indemnity insurance (P&I) clubs banding together to cancel cover for ships that have even one seafarer on board for longer than the term agreed under their original contract.

Ships covered by P&I clubs would remain suspended until replacements have joined the ship, all handovers are completed, and the off-signing crew members are safely home. A radical notion for some perhaps, but why not use all the powers we have at our disposal to finally force an end to this untenable situation?

Now is the time for the maritime industry and its supply chain to work together and put massive pressure on governments that is needed to end this crisis, or we will face imminent safety consequences and years of fallout.