As deadline for crew change passes, seafarers are faced with a tough choice

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on June 16, 2020

While the ITF has said seafarers who have completed their contracts have the right to return home, doing so could earn them the wrath of the ship owners

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers looking to get off ships after sailing on extended contracts are faced with a ticklish situation: to stop sailing and get repatriated home with the help of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and incur the wrath of the ship owners and managers who employ them.

It’s a Hobson’s Choice for seafarers, who have been running ships without a break, after the pandemic induced travel restrictions made crew changes impossible, drawing the attention of the globe on a workforce that has remained largely hidden from limelight despite being responsible for moving some 90 per cent of the world trade.

When the June 15 deadline set by the ITF to repatriate crew working beyond their stipulated contract time, by following the protocols circulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ended on Monday, the onus of pulling the plug on world trade fell squarely on the shoulders of the overworked crew, notwithstanding the fact that these tired staff posed a risk to the safe operation of ships.

“Enough is enough; you have the right to return home,” the London-based ITF advised seafarers anxiously waiting for a strong stand from the union.

“If you have finished your contract, then you have the right to be repatriated. If this is not possible then you would remain on board as a passenger. The consequences could be that the ship is unable to sail if the manning level is inadequate, but that is not the responsibility of the seafarers,” ITF said.

“We are clear – if a seafarer wants off a ship, then the ITF, our affiliate unions and the ITF inspectorate will do everything we can to assist them. We know that you need to get off these ships, and we will help you to do so where we can. You have done your job, performed your duties, and accepted that you were unable to return home in the beginning in order to contain the spread of Covid-19 – but no more,” it said.

While a few thousand seafarers have been rotated globally since May, this is seen as a drop in the ocean, with the numbers awaiting replacement estimated to be about 150,000.

Crew recruitment companies in India – a top supplier of crew to the global shipping industry - have “appealed” to the seafarers on board ships to “support” those on shore to join ships, nudging the crew to heed the advice of the ITF.

“Indian recruitment companies have chartered flights and crew change is happening. Action by on-board seafarers will either make us (India crew) the darling of ship owners or will destroy jobs,” said Captain Sanjay Prashar, managing director at Mumbai-based V R Maritime Services.

The issue is how do they get off the ships as ship owners and managers are reluctant to replace crew citing lack of international flights and to save on “unnecessary expenses on crew change”. While some big owners/managers have arranged charter flights to swap crew, smaller firms are waiting for commercial flights to re-start.

Besides, ship owners and managers have said they will not support stoppage of work by the crew overdue for relief as this was not a solution to the crew change crisis.

The problem is not the shipping companies, most of whom have shown an intent to get things moving, but governments who have sabotaged their plans, said a crewing executive.

“Ship managers will be in trouble if the crew stops working. Each ship has a minimum manning number. If that is breached, the ship is considered unseaworthy and cannot sail. It will have to call at the nearest port to relieve the existing crew and get replacements to comply with the safe manning rules, depending on what that country will allow,” said a Chief Officer sailing on board a ship on extended contract.

If crew change is possible in that port and the seafarer contacts the ITF to assist him in this, the owner/manager will have to carry out crew change even if it means the ship has to stay in port to clear quarantine and other requirements for crew change in that country.

But, seafarers opting to get off the ship, have to be ready to be “harassed” by their employers when looking for their next assignment, he said.

ITF should at least say that it will stand by the crew if any reciprocal action is taken by the manning companies, he said.

“Looks like this suffering is here to stay,” he stated.

Published on June 16, 2020

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