Crewing challenges during Covid-19 and beyond: lessons to be learnt

Ilaria Grasso Macola 6 August 2020 (Last Updated August 6th, 2020 11:51)

Seafarers conditions continue to make the headlines, as more than 250,000 still remain stranded at sea unable to disembark due to Covid-19 restrictions. In this webinar, we learn how the industry is coping and what it’s doing to bring these people home.

Crewing challenges during Covid-19 and beyond: lessons to be learnt
The webinar focused on the crewing challenges in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Credit: International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Entitled ‘Addressing the industry’s crewing challenge during the Covid-19 era and beyond’, the webinar took place on 29 July and was hosted by business media company Capital Link.

Experts from all across the industry, as well as representatives from international organisations, focused on what is happening to seafarers, who have been stranded at sea for months due to the travel restrictions imposed by countries to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The potential for the situation to become a safety issue, and the approaches adopted by the industry and the international community were amongst the many topics discussed.

Here is what we learnt.

 

The situation is continuously changing

Even though the situation face by seafarers has become widely-known and led to mobilisation campaigns from both the shipping industry and international organisations, there is still a lot to do.

According to estimates from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), between 250,000 and 300,000 seamen are still stranded aboard ships, not being allowed to disembark. A similar number of seafarers have remained at shore for months, not being able to work.

ICS Secretary-General Guy Platten explained that, despite some success obtained by ship owners who pressured countries to allow crew changes, the situation worsens with every passing week.

Governments around the world, especially in Asia, are still shutting their borders and not recognising seamen as essential workers. The Philippines, for example, has become particularly problematic as it only allows crew changes for a limited number of seafarers every day.

Other countries, including Singapore and Hong Kong, have tightened their regulations of crew changes, creating a constantly changing situation.

“We started seeing some signs of improvement, but we fear we’re facing again a deterioration where more countries, especially in Asia, are closing down or making the process too difficult,” commented Euronav Ship Management general manager Stamatis Bourboulis.

According to Bourboulis, shipping companies like Euronav are facing an “amazingly difficult” challenge to schedule and plan seafarers’ repatriation because of the lack of cooperation from governments.

Despite the adverse conditions, companies such as Euronav and Columbia Shipmanagement are still supporting their crew members, offering relief measures such as financial and psychological support, as well as free internet and health campaigns.

 

The situation is increasingly become a safety issue

According to maritime insurance Steamship Mutual managing director Chris Adams, not only is the current situation a serious humanitarian crisis but it has the potential to become also a safety issue.

Adams explained that with fatigued and tired seafarers, the risk of committing errors increases, potentially leading to all kinds of accidents, even fatal ones.

Experts in fact believe that if the situation was happening in any other sector, there would be a public outcry.

“There’s a great amount of sea blindness around the world,” Adams said. “There is a huge disconnect between the desire for the latest piece of technological equipment and how it gets to the user. People don’t think of ships and the important part they play.”

 

An all-hands on deck approach is needed to bring seafarers home

International organisations, including the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), have quickly realised that the situation has the potential to become a safety as well as economic crisis and have been pressuring governments to recognise seafarers as essential workers.

As explained by director of legal affairs and external relations Frederick Kenney, the IMO has concretely taken steps to ensure a quick resolution, including putting out guidance, such as industry-related protocols, to ensure safe crew changes.

The organisation has also established a Seafarers Crisis Action Team to deal with individual cases through the use of diplomacy. Kenney recounted that, in one instance, senior members of the IMO had to intervene when a seafarer suffered from a stroke and was not allowed to disembark to obtain medical care.

Given the complexity of the situation and the numerous challenges faced, Kenney explained that the best approach is a cross-agency collaboration.

The IMO is in fact collaborating with other UN agencies, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as international organisations, including the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the ICS.

One of the reasons behind the need to act fast, said Kenney, is that mental health problems, and in particular suicides, have spiked since the beginning of the travel restrictions.

“If we can get people home and to work, we can lower that risk,” he added.

 

What is happening now might impact recruitment of sea workers in the future

Experts believe that what is currently happening to sea workers will have negative effects on the future of recruiting.

According to Adams, there is a risk that young seafarers will feel unprotected and disincentivized to choose a career on board ships.

Even though the future of shipping is moving towards automation, Adams believes that the industry still needs for young people to become seafarers and the current situation might deter them from doing so.

“As an industry, we’re going to need talented young people to be incentivised to pursue a seagoing career. This sort of thing does not help,” he added.

On the other hand, Columbia Shipmanagement managing director Andreas Hadjipetrou has remained positive, believing that, despite everything, the new generation of seafarers will not be deterred.

“In all fairness, being a seafarer was never seen as the easiest of jobs,” he commented. “I think that the new generation of seafarers somehow feel this in their veins and it excites them. Young people who want to become seafarers will continue on their career path and will not stop.”