Japan’s top three shipping lines lobby government on crew change

Mega container ship MOL Triumph. Credit: HASENPUSCH DIETMAR

Japan’s top three shipping companies, Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), NYK Line, and K Line are working through the Japanese Shipowners’ Association to get the government to negotiate with the authorities of other countries to allow crew changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The companies have publicly disclosed how the COVID-19-linked worldwide travel restrictions have prevented crew change, resulting in seafarers and marine engineers having to work for longer periods on board.

MOL managed to arrange change-overs for four Japanese crew members on one of its mega container ships, MOL Triumph, when the vessel arrived in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on 12 June 2020. Six days later, two replacement crew members boarded MOL Triumph when the 20,170 teu ship arrived in Southampton, England.

MOL’s crew members, including marine engineers, have standard onboard employment periods of six months, with three months of shore leave thereafter. However, the travel restrictions have caused crew members to work on MOL’s ships for at least nine months.

An MOL spokesperson told SAS that the recent crew change was possible as the Netherlands and the UK have heeded the industry’s call to recognise seafarers as essential workers and therefore permit crew changes.

“The crew change situation has slightly improved, compared with the situation in April, but the difficulty of crew change is still a big issue for our industry. We have been in contact with the Japanese Shipowners’ Association to get the government involved to improve the situation,” said the MOL spokesperson.

“MOL considers safety of our crew members on board as top priority and we’re doing everything we can to keep our crew safe and to continue the worldwide supply chain going at the same time,” he said.

Japan allows crew changes, depending on the travel history of the on-signing and off-signing crew members.

In May, the country’s shipowners came up with a plan to use Kansai International Airport in Osaka to facilitate the arrival and departure of crew. The airport is located on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, and ferries can transport the crew between the airport and the ships, without the crew having to enter the Japanese mainland.

In the UK, several charities have launched emergency funds to help seafarers and their families who have been financially impacted by the crew change restrictions. Seafarers UK launched a USD2.5 million fund and the International Transport Workers’ Federation Seafarers’ Trust made available welfare services and USD1.2 million for grants.

In a press statement, NYK Line also alluded to how crew changes have become a serious problem due to the ongoing travel restrictions. The company’s crew usually disembark after working for 3–6 months on a ship.

“Many countries are currently limiting the transport of people, so crew already on board are being forced to extend their working period, while crew anticipating boarding are being forced to continue waiting at home. Changing crew on a regular basis is necessary to maintain mental and physical health, as well as crew employment, and the disruption of this cycle can have a significant impact on international marine transportation, which is a lifeline for us all,” said NYK Line in a statement. “NYK is actively delivering opinions on this topic to international organisations such as International Maritime Organization [IMO] through the Japanese Shipowners’ Association.”

In mid-June, K Line created a video message to express its gratitude to the hardships and sacrifices of seafarers. “This unprecedented and difficult times have brought a lot of challenges to many of our seafarers. But despite of this challenging situation, our seafarers are staying strong to maintain the supply chain moving, to keep the global economy running, and to support the lives of people all across the globe,” said K Line in a statement. “We will continue to exert our utmost efforts to smoothly conduct crew replacements in co-operation with relevant organisations.”