Maersk urges governments to act and end crew change plight after UK summit

Containership Maersk Essen. Credit: Maersk

A joint statement from countries at a UK government virtual summit on crew changes has reiterated the need to designate crew as ‘key workers’ and allow for safe crew changes around the world.

Maersk has urged governments to do more to end the seafarer crisis, a day after 13 countries encouraged crew change practices but held back on forcing action following the UK summit.

At the UK-hosted summit on 9 July, representatives from those countries, including Denmark, Greece, Indonesia, Norway, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, issued a joint statement urging member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to designate crew as key workers. It also advocated for member states to engage in discussions to implement the IMO’s recommended protocols on safe crew change amid COVID-19, review the restrictions to travel of seafarers, and work with the aviation industry on ways to increase commercial flights to principal seafarer nations.

The joint statement has been welcomed by shipping organisations including the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which described the summit as a “catalyst for action”. However, notes of caution were also sounded as it is unclear how quickly any changes will be made to end the plight of thousands of seafarers still waiting to be allowed to leave their vessels and travel home. Shipping giant Maersk is leading the calls for political action, appealing to governments to establish the necessary protocols to allow crew changes to occur, including establishing ‘safe corridors’ between countries.

The ICS also stressed that governments must “implement the solutions the shipping industry has provided, applying the political will needed to put them into practice”.

There are currently an estimated 200,000 seafarers stuck on board and onshore due to restrictions imposed by COVID-19. For many crew, the situation has become dire, and in the case of the captain of Emma Maersk, involved carrying out dental emergencies. The captain was stuck on board the ship for 167 days, and had to literally pull teeth out of crew members’ jaw as they were refused emergency dental/medical assistance onshore. The captain disembarked in Hamburg, Germany, on 9 July. Following this event and the UK summit, Maersk issued its statement asking governments to act urgently to implement policy to help crew changes.

Their recommendations include establishing safe corridors between key countries; approve flights linking major ports to home air hubs, such as the Philippines and India, to allow for crew rotation and end contract extensions; to allow safe travel and issue the necessary visas in port/airport corridors; involve shipping companies in constructive dialogue to facilitate crew change by engaging through diplomatic channels to achieve this.

“We have experienced several rejections from authorities around the world to both basic professional medical assistance to seafarers as well as rejection of repatriation/sign off due to their medical condition – both physical or mental in nature,” Maersk said in its statement.

Maersk has 6,600 crew members aboard vessels with more than one-third working well beyond their contract, most of them have no indication of when they will be able to return home. Maersk has also set-up a 24/7 task force to deal with the crew change issue.