Indian seafarers are being overlooked for jobs on ships as lack of vaccinated crew force global shipowners to tap other nationalities such as Bangladesh and Indonesia — who were given priority jabs by their governments — for crewing needs.

Shedding their initial reticence towards vaccination, seafarers are registering on the Co-Win portal for taking jabs.

“There is heightened level of awareness among Indian seafarers on the need to get vaccinated. They are registering on the Co-Win portal for vaccination but are not getting appointments due to shortage of vaccines,” said Abdulgani Serang, general secretary-cum treasurer of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), a union representing general purpose staff working on ships.

“As a result, other nationalities are benefiting; they are taking over the jobs of Indians,” Serang said.

Only 14 per cent of seafarers have taken their first dose of vaccine and only 1 per cent have got their second dose, according to an industry estimate.

“Shortage of vaccines means some job losses for seafarers,” said Captain Sanjay Prashar, Managing Director at Mumbai-based V R Maritime Services.

Curbs on crew change

With maritime hubs such as Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, Fujairah, the US, the UK and Canada placing restrictions on crew change involving seafarers with recent travel history to India, Prashar said the earliest he could see the situation “stabilising is August this year”.

Serang said that the choice of getting vaccinated or not rest with the seafarers. “But, if they want to continue as seafarers, they have to get vaccinated because ship owners are telling crew managers to send only vaccinated crew,” he said.

Serang also lamented the fact that seafarers were not given priority in vaccination despite being tagged as key/essential workers. With vaccinated Indian crew in short supply, ship owners are increasingly turning to Bangladeshi seafarers for their crewing needs. Bangladesh government, he said, has accorded priority to seafarers in vaccination.

Cruise ship operators are hiring Indonesian crew as the Indonesian government has given priority in vaccination to its seafarers, Serang added.

The gap between the first and the second doses of the vaccine and the absence of a standard list of universally approved vaccines were adding to the woes, he said.

With an estimated one lakh crews to be changed over every month globally, ship manager Synergy Group reckons that the crew change crisis facing the shipping industry since the outbreak of the pandemic last year “will only deteriorate with every passing day” as more countries reintroduce travel curbs.

“This will add to the fatigue, anxiety and mental stress of seafarers onboard, who are already concerned about the health and well-being of their families back home,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Singapore-based Synergy Group, which manages some 370 ships.

Replacements are hard to come by in India due to shortage of vaccinated crews, which the industry say will hurt delivery of containers and crude imports.

“We anticipate that at the peak of this kind of emergency, it’s going to be very fluid for a while before things settle down and we will have to be very agile and very nimble. We are very closely tracking the course of the second-wave of the Covid outbreak and as an immediate measure have frozen all crew changes outside India for the next 21 days,” Unni added.