Crew change crisis takes a new turn with ships deviating to India to drop overworked staff

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on May 17, 2020

Representative image   -  Bloomberg

By the time, Captain Bejoy Kannan signed off from ‘China Dawn’ in the wee hours of Saturday, he had earned praise and brickbats for his decision to divert the oil tanker to Cochin port to allow him and his nine mates to disembark after an extended contract on the ship.

The oil tanker was travelling to Singapore from South Africa when Kannan altered the course of the ship to Cochin, citing mental exhaustion he and his crew faced due to the extra time spent at sea, as the lockdown restrictions to combat the pandemic in many parts of the globe halted crew change on ships.

“Looking forward to reaching Kolkata to my family soon,” Kannan, who has spent 25 years at sea, tweeted after getting off from ‘China Dawn’.

Similar situation in recent days

On May 13, a similar situation was unfolding on ‘PSU Seventh’, a Singapore flagged ore carrier managed by Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern Univan Group.

Crew who were overdue onboard – six had completed more than 12 months while another six continued to work more than a month after their contract ended- pressed for a deviation to Cochin to sign off. The ship manager secured permission from the ship owner to divert the ship to Cochin “on humanitarian grounds” to disembark the crew, an exercise that entailed extra expenses and involved the interests of the ship charterer and insurers.

The extra expenses included port agency cost of about $96,000 and the gross cost to the owners account for loss of hire, bunker costs and insurance cost added up to more than $230,000. A ship is considered to have been de-hired during the period it is diverted from its normal route to another port.

Anglo-Eastern Univan’s earlier attempts to change crew in China, Singapore, Port Louis and Brazil, faltered due to the pandemic as these places were closed for the such activity and because of the lockdown and stoppage of flights into India.

As the crew changed dragged, the ship owners agreed to pay an extra 25 per cent of basic wages as “delayed relief compensation”. This has become the industry norm now.

Possible outcomes at Cochin

However, changing crew at Cochin had its own risks. It could be called off at the last moment due to inclement weather as monsoon would have set in by the time the ship reached Cochin. Besides, with Kerala anticipating a massive influx of Gulf returnees over the next few days, Cochin Port may refuse to disembark crew, if the number of coronavirus positive cases increased.

If the crew change was cancelled, the ship owner would have burnt money on the deviation.

But, even if the crew change happened, those signing off from the ship faced challenges such as a 28-day quarantine, though Kerala residents are allowed to undergo it at home, provided it is not in red zone. After quarantine, non-Keralites would have to travel hundreds of kms by road to reach home and go into quarantine again.

Options offered to the crew of ‘PSU Seventh’

With shipping in recession, the deviation is an unavoidable loss to the owner, Vinay Singh, a senior executive at Anglo-Eastern Univan wrote in an e-mail to the Captain, Chief Engineer and staff on board ‘PSU Seventh’.

“It shows owners in a positive light for agreeing to incür such expense on humanitarian ground. However, our concern is that it doesn't reflect positively on us. So far, Indians are the only seafarers who seem to seek deviation,” Singh wrote in the mail.

The current owners have other ships with Chinese staff who are cheaper, but owners have opted for expensive Indian staff for sake of better quality and credibility. In owners view, this deviation may cause “irreparable damage” regarding reliability of Indian Seafarers and ship may eventually move to a cheaper (crew) nationality.

“The damage to reputation may not matter to few of us, but there are thousands of young Indians who may get impacted in coming months/years for such available loss of job opportunity. It must be understood that world appreciates people who stand up and face the adversity. A soldier who leave the war midway to return home, is never really counted as a hero,” Singh exhorted the staff.

Given this, Singh offered an option to the crew. They could continue on board till the discharge port in China.

If return flights are available, relievers will be arranged for all crew at China. If crew change is not possible at China, then owners have agreed to deviate the vessel to any port/India, to arrange the crew change when vessel is in ballast (without cargo).

“If staff agrees for above suggestion, then owners are willing to pay an additional bonus of $10,000 to the vessel for staff who have got extensively delayed (due) to the pandemic,” Singh said.

The advantage of this option is that most flights are opening up slowly and most likely all staff will reach home at same time as after quarantine at Kochi and will continue to earn till reaching home, he said.

“Above is a courageous option of choosing a difficult path to keep global supply chain running, even when the easier part/ short cut was available,” he added while urging the staff to take an “informed decision”.

Most of the crew turned down the offer to continue on board the ship.

“Since there are many people who are not in a frame of mind to continue longer, it is best to deviate for arranging crew change at Kochi. Our only concern was that it should not happen that in spite of the expenses, crew change gets cancelled due to weather or closure of crew changes at Kochi,” Singh wrote in another email to the ship’s Captain on May 14.

The ship is now expected in Cochin on May 29.

From April 22, India has allowed crew change of Indian seafarers at Indian ports and framed standard operating procedures (SOP) for this. Those ships that are calling at Indian ports for loading and unloading cargo, in the normal course, could disembark their Indian crew who are due for sign off at the end of their contract period and allow relievers to sign on.

Seafarers and their families have been pouring their anguish in the social media, urging the government to come out with an SOP for crew change at foreign ports to help tens of thousand of Indian sailors on extended contract to get off their ships.

Current Protocols

On May 5, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) circulated a framework of protocols to 174 member states, for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

On May 13, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council have given governments time until June 15 to repatriate crew working beyond their stipulated contract time, by following the IMO guidelines.

During crew change, a seafarer just cannot sign off from a ship in an overseas port until a reliever comes on board. A lot of logistical planning and coordination goes into this, a key requirement of which is resumption of international flights.

But, the closure of international flights to India to facilitate their return have foreclosed this option from becoming a reality.

“It’s a logistical nightmare; there are no easy solutions,” said the Indian Captain of an oil tanker currently sailing with cargo towards China. “I am on an extended contract, have done eight months now and very eager to get back home,” he told BusinessLine from his ship somewhere in the Arabian sea. A ship’s Captain (Master) typically has a four-month contract on board, while lower ranked crew has eight months.

“One should not wait for an accident related to fatigue to wake up to the cause,” he said. “Tired people do not perform. So, the crux of it is, fatigue is not good for a seafarer nor for the ship owner as it can lead to losses and no one wants that situation to arise. Hence, the urgency to change crew,” he added.

Yet, he said, it is necessary to take a “rational” view.

Seafarers are being given “compensation of as much as 25 per cent extra of basic wages” for the additional time spent at sea.

“It costs a bomb (more than double) to change crew in India now. It sure does not make financial sense nor does it do any good to the hiring prospects of Indian seafarers. We bring in dollars into the country after all. But, given the job situation in our country, we need these jobs,” he said.

“We are strained but we have to come to terms with market forces. In rest of the world, people are losing jobs, at least, we have them,” he said.

What do the seafarers have to say

To many Indian seafarers, their wives and parents back home, waiting anxiously for their repatriation, Kannan, the master of ‘China Dawn’, is a hero for his “courageous conduct”.

“Every master should think the way you did, that we seafarers are not slaves; we are the backbone of the shipping industry,” a seafarer said, echoing the sentiments of many that crew should be tagged as “essential workers” and accorded priority treatment.

“A tired crew cannot run a ship efficiently. Human-machine interface requires the human to be alert and have good situational awareness,” said Uma Maheshwar, a marine engine officer.

Kannan was lucky that all his crew were Indians and he could divert the ship knowing fully well that India allowed crew change for its own seafarers and they could somehow get back home by road.

This was what the Indian crew on board ‘PSU Seventh’ had in mind when they insisted on a deviation to Cochin.

Kannan could not be reached for comments.

Critics of the move

Critics say that the deviation to Cochin by these ships was a “short-sighted” move and an “unprecedented” situation.

In larger perspective, the action of the master of diverting the ship without owners/charterers directions may be more damaging to his own crew, himself and the interests of the Indian seafarers at large, according to a former Shipping Ministry official.

Some foreign ship owners may decide to replace Indian crew with “more amenable” Chinese or Philippines crew.

Charterers may avoid taking a ship on hire with Indian crew on board, he said.

But, the times are such and governments are not being very co-operative in terms of helping us out, the Captain on the oil tanker said. “These are unprecedented times, even companies have to be given time to respond,” he added.

Published on May 17, 2020

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