The impact of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the maritime industry is widespread. To mitigate the risk of exposure, ships must navigate complex restrictions to change crew members after several months at sea. Repatriation and replacing seafarers have proven difficult due to country-specific movement restrictions and a lack of available flights, often resulting in extended employment contracts. Crew change limitations have led to concerns over the safety of shipping crews and longer-term effects on supply chains.
Concerns of Crew Welfare Raised Following Detainment of 5 Ships in UK
The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) detained five ships on June 19, comprising around 1,500 crew. The MCA declared that the detentions occurred after inspections revealed serious concerns over crew welfare. One of the major issues relates to shipping crew changes that usually occur after ship-worker contracts expire and workers need to be repatriated and replaced. The primary reasons behind crew change constraints are international movement controls and the lack of commercial flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and thousands of seafarers worldwide are reportedly stranded. The gridlock creates a considerable risk to seafarers’ personal safety while threatening to severely disrupt global supply chains.
The Need for Standardized Crew Change Policy
Crew changes are an essential cog in the machine for any supply chain that involves shipping. Without an effective crew change policy, seafarers must extend their time on ships beyond contractual obligations. Due to COVID-19 constraining international movement and authorities limiting commercial flights, effective crew changes have become notoriously difficult in many global locations. The limitations remain even while the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) warns that seafarers should only serve 12 months onboard a ship before shipowners are mandated to cover their repatriation costs. The strain of ineffective crew changes on crew welfare and the potential for supply chain delays will likely continue to disrupt companies with transnational operations in the foreseeable future.
Influential shipping groups, most notably the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have been pressing governments to facilitate crew changes as they warn that the current situation is causing considerable burdens on the safe operations of maritime trade. The IMO declared that the issue is threatening a humanitarian crisis and issued a 12-step plan to over 170 countries to help streamline effective crew changes in early May. Several shipping unions and associations have backed the plan, though only a handful of nations have reportedly taken the proposed blueprint to action.
Impact of Crew Change Limitations on Worker Safety and Supply Chains
Crew welfare issues will likely remain of concern for companies abiding by safety standards demanded by international shipping bodies, regulators, and their own crew members. Around 400,000 seafarers are currently among those needing repatriation and replacing.
Several of them will likely be stranded in the near term and could consequently suffer health and welfare concerns, while employers struggle to navigate international restrictions. As crew change limitations have persisted, some crew have likened their vessels to floating prisons. Civic organizations are reporting on mental breakdowns and incidents of self-harm related to overworking. The issue is unlikely to fade away in the foreseeable future after calls for an initiative to designate seafarers as key workers, to facilitate international repatriation, has not been universally implemented.
In addition to crew safety concerns, disruptions to supply chains will worsen if authorities detain vessels due to noncompliance with existing maritime regulations. Despite crew change limitations, authorities are still enforcing related safety protocols. The MCA’s June 19 seizure was due to factors such as delayed wage payments and reports of seafarers engaging in hunger strikes to demand repatriation. On the same day, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) detained a UK vessel due to several crew-related shortcomings. Listed faults include the ship’s lack of preparedness for repatriating the crew after 11 months of contractual service. While the AMSA incident resolved quickly, related detentions could play out at many of the world’s seaports in the coming months.
Near-term Outlook of Widespread Rejection of Crew Change Protocols
Reasons why governments should quickly and effectively deal with crew change limitations include the personal safety of workers and the knock-on effects to international trade; however, even as the ITF issued a June 16 deadline for countries to adopt the IMO’s 12-step crew change plan, the date has passed with marginal universal change. Following the absence of concrete action, the ITF has warned that seafarers have a right to engage in work stoppages while ships are docked at port. This scenario could result in ships falling below the minimum staffing requirements and further delay supply chains.
Since countries are slow to adopt effective crew change protocols, decision-makers of multinational organizations must ensure that they stay abreast of existing country restrictions and port operations during the COVID-19 pandemic to efficiently navigate the constantly developing threat environment.
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