MCA cruise ship detentions sends strong message to shipping firms amid COVID-19

One of the five cruise vessels detained over the weekend, Marco Polo. Credit: Jukka Koskimies

The UK Maritime Coast Guard Agency (MCA) has detained five cruise vessels since Friday 19 June, on the grounds of late payment of wages and expired or invalid Seafarer Employment Agreements.

The Global Maritime Group owned vessels, Astor, Astoria, Columbus, and Vasco de Gama, were detained in Tilbury docks in Essex, while the Marco Polo was held at Avonmouth docks, Bristol.

The inability to carry out crew changes due to travel restrictions imposed by governments amid the COVID-19 pandemic has led to these vessels infringing the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). It was found that certain crew members had been onboard the vessels for more than a year.

The UK was informed of serious concerns with regards the welfare of the crew onboard a number of vessels and, following our inspections, significant breaches of MLC were identified,” said Heather Skull a spokesperson for the MCA. “We will continue to work to protect crew welfare by carrying out these kinds of inspections where similar concerns are raised in the future,” Skull told SAS.

It is thought that the MCA carried out targeted inspections onboard the vessels after the All India Seafarer and General Workers’ Union wrote to the Indian Foreign Office with concerns that 164 Indian seafarers had been stuck onboard the Astoria for more than 90 days.

This is the first detention of foreign flagged vessels in UK ports since the outbreak of the pandemic, when the Port State Control (PSC) regimes agreed to carry out a more targeted approach towards inspections to avoid putting both surveyors and crew at risk of infection.

However, there are others that feel this most recent detention may be far more targeted than previously thought. Speaking with SAS captain Matt Turner AFNI, an independent PSC Compliance expert and former employee at the MCA, stated that the MCA has not carried out PSC on any vessel since 23 March whether or not they were deemed ‘High Risk’ by their PSC risk profile. An average of 360 inspections would normally have been carried out in the UK during this period.

“Whilst it may be coincidental that only six PSC inspections have been carried out in the UK in the last three months, and that all the ships inspected were all operated by the same company, and the individual PSC officers all reached the same conclusions in five cases, it may also not be,” captain Turner told SAS. “It may even prove to be a political exercise, against a wounded company that is unlikely to fight back, to show the world that the UK is doing the right thing, during unprecedented times when thousands of ships are being operated just inside the envelopes of legislation, waving letters of acceptance from Flag States that purport to allow them to continue – without any PSC action being taken against them”.

“Commentators may ask why foreign flagged multi-national cruise lines that are anchored in the UK, with similar non-compliances are not also been targeted, the answer may lie in how many ships they also operate under the UK Flag and how good their lawyers are,” captain Turner told SAS. He added that he would not be surprised to see a prosecution of the company to further maximise coverage of the detentions and spread the message that issues of crew welfare will be taken seriously.

SAS reached out to the MCA for comment regarding captain Turners’ allegations, but did not directly address his suggestions on MCA targeting Global Maritime Group. “The MCA’s top priority in cases such as this is the welfare of the seafarers affected. The MCA received formal reports directly from IMO Member states and other responsible bodies about these specific ships and the treatment of the crew onboard, that gave us serious concerns about their health and well-being,” an MCA spokesperson said. “As a responsible PSC authority we have an obligation to rigorously investigate such reports without fear or favour and do all in our power to uphold international maritime law and conventions”.

A UK Chamber of Shipping spokesperson told SAS, “The welfare of ships’ crews is of great importance, particularly in these extraordinarily challenging times.  We hope that all parties who have a role to play in resolving this unfortunate situation will show the necessary urgency to ensure that the remaining crew members can return to their homes as quickly as possible”.

According to data presented at a DNV GL webinar on 4 June, in certain countries in Asia where the pandemic is slowly abating PSC inspections have increased slightly and so could signal the beginning of a return to normal. As such, Claudia Ohlmeier, group leader port state control DNV GL, put forward that PSC will start questioning survey postponements and extensions.