July 24th 2020

The international summit held on July 9 to address the breakdown in the crew change process has yet to yield significant results, according to unions and shipping companies.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation said Thursday it estimates that worldwide, there are now about 300,000 seafarers working aboard ship beyond their original contract.

It said an equal number are waiting on shore to join their ships, bringing the total number affected to 600,000.

“The situation as it stands is not tenable,” A.P. Moller–Maersk said in a statement.

The company, which says it has set up a 24/7 task force to deal with crew changes, reports that of the 6600 crew members aboard Maersk vessels, over a third are working well beyond their contract, with no indication of when they will be able to return home.

It has called for action to prevent a humanitarian crisis with potential consequences for safety at sea.

Pledging to address the situation at the July 9 summit were representatives of Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

They vowed to:

— urge all International Maritime Organization states to designate seafarers as key workers;

— implement the protocols on crew change and travel circulated by the IMO in May; and

— relax pandemic-driven restrictions and make more commercial flights available to help mariners get to and from their ships.

But the results, for the most part, have yet to be seen.

“The problem is that different agencies in a bureaucracy have different agendas and they don’t share a common goal or policy,” said MM&P Vice President George A. Quick, an expert on international maritime law who represents the union in a number of domestic and international forums.

“It is a huge problem in trying to get uniform international policies adopted or implemented.”

An article published by Lloyd’s List-Informa said ship operators are seeking to carry out crew changes in the US, the UK, and other countries with the least amount of paperwork and red tape.

The “diplomatic show of unity at the UK’s July 9 crew change crisis summit [is] not leading to easier transfers for tens of thousands of stranded seafarers,” writes Michelle Wiese Bockmann in the article, entitled “Crew change commitments are failing on the ground.”

She said most of the 13 countries that pledged action during the summit do not have immigration, travel or health procedures that easily facilitate transfer.

Some have confusing rules or do not even permit crew change; others technically allow crew change but bar mariners from staying at hotels, requiring that they only travel between airport and ship, or vice versa.

Ship managers told Lloyd’s List that most major seafaring countries—including the Philippines, Russia, China and Ukraine—did not even participate in the summit.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, which issued an urgent call for action on July 15, said that although “there has been some positive movement… too little progress has been made by governments to bring in the practical exemptions and protocols needed to support functioning crew changes across the world.”

“300,000 seafarers are trapped working aboard these vessels, and another 300,000 are facing financial ruin at home, desperate to relieve these ships and start earning wages again,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton.

“Governments must act before we see more people die, or worse—a major maritime disaster. Urgent action is required.”

“We commend the governments which have brought in options for seafarers to disembark and be relieved by fresh crew, such as visas on arrival and visa waivers, but the sad fact is that globally governments aren’t doing near what is needed and some governments have even gone backwards,” said Dave Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers Section.

“Those countries that rely on maritime trade, like Australia and Russia—must start pulling their weight on this issue.”

Heindel said that the ITF would be following up to track the actions of the 13 governments that pledged to improve the situation at the July 9 summit.

“Governmental lip service is no longer an acceptable solution,” he said. “We are prepared to explore other options to influence more governments to take this crisis seriously.”