Indian seafarers fear job loss as government dithers on crew change in foreign waters

P. Manoj | | Updated on: May 04, 2020
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India risks incurring the wrath of the global shipping industry and losing out to rivals such as China, the Philippines and Ukraine on seafaring jobs as the government dithers on a strategy to evacuate thousands of crew stranded on board ships at overseas ports, some of them several days after their contracts have ended.

Some 30,000 Indian seafarers, 70 per cent of whom work on cruise liners, are stranded overseas, awaiting repatriation to India.

As the pandemic spread rapidly, cruise line operators halted services and these luxury ships are either idling at ports or are on the high seas.

The cruise ships are not doing any business currently and thousands of crew members from different countries, were staying on board the liners.

A few days ago, most of the Filipino, Indonesian and Ukrainian seafarers were repatriated to their countries on chartered flights arranged by the cruise line owners, after the respective governments allowed them to return.

That leaves only the Indian crew on board, in the absence of a plan to facilitate their return and the ban on international flights from March 24.

The expenses of the remaining Indian crew is being borne by the owners of the cruise lines.

A poor impression

“Now, that creates an impression,” said Abdulgani Serang, general secretary-cum-treasurer of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI).

“When the cruise line owners are bleeding, they are definitely going to remember this when the situation turns around… that India did not co-operate. They are spending lots of money on maintaining Indians on board their ships. Many of the seafarers are put up in hotels, somebody is paying for all that,” Serang said.

“They will give preference to Filipinos who, as it is, outnumber Indians as general-purpose staff. The shipping industry will give added preference to them because of the ease of doing business with a Filipino, the proof is there,” he stated.

Standard operating procedure

The Shipping Minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, held a video conference with seafarers’ unions and shipping companies a few days ago to discuss a way out, as demand grows for framing a so-called standard operating procedure (SOP) for seafarers stranded abroad, similar to the one finalised for crew change at Indian ports on April 21.

“After some teething troubles, the otherwise well-defined SOP is taking effect in Indian ports. We now have to focus on the larger challenge of sign-on/sign-off in foreign ports. Seafarers and their families are running out of patience and it’s straining their mental health,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO and Founder of Singapore-based ship manager, Synergy Group.

“Why can’t the government make a SOP for seafarers sailing in foreign waters. Is it too difficult to start flights with better caution than start a railway service for migrant workers with no caution,” says Mohammed Arif, a second engineer on a ship, hailing from Raipur.

As China and the Philippines implement a green channel for crew change, Indian seafarers say they should be prepared to “sacrifice jobs”.

“By the time international flights operate from India, most Indian seafarers will be replaced by other nationalities,” said Dhyan Ramakrishnan, a third mate working on board a ship.

“Do we really want Indian seafarers to lose their market, our well-earned reputation from ages? Now is the only time to take action,” Captain Mahadev Dhandhiya, a master mariner, urged the government.

Indian seafarers working on board cargo ships sailing in international waters are also facing a testing time.

“The cargo ships are running; they are doing business, but the seafarers working on those ships have been asked to extend their contracts by 1-3 months,” says Serang.

“Having an extended contract will affect their physical and mental state of mind. Suppose an accident takes place because of the fatigue. The seafarer has been working on that ship for 11-12 months, saturation point will come, and in that mind frame, suppose anything happens,” says Serang, making a strong case for bringing seafarers back to India.

“All seafarers (stranded abroad) are struggling to join ships or go home,” says the International Maritime Federation (IMF). “They are waiting for the hub airport travel system,” said the Federation, an association of Indian shipping entrepreneurs, crew managers and maritime training institutions.

The IMF is hoping that the Shipping Ministry will resolve the impasse as “negative sentiments are high for the treatment given to Indian seafarers”.

Serang said cruise line owners are willing to send them back, by chartering flights with their own money. But, if the Indian government is not going to take them in, if the government does not lift the ban on international travel, that is the problem, he said.

“Cruise ship owners/ operators have already put in writing that they are willing to bear the cost of chartered flights. It will require some 10-15 flights because thousands have to come in. They will ensure that once the seafarers come in, the quarantine and other things will be taken care of. All these things they have put in writing, but permission is not being granted. That is not happening; that is the problem,” Serang added.

Published on May 04, 2020

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