Is the crew change crisis hurting the brand image of Indian seafarers?

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on May 19, 2020

Soaring crew change costs in India are discouraging ship owners and managers from carrying out this task as seafarers pile up pressure to be relieved after spending time at sea much beyond their contract period.

“Crew change is turning out to be an expensive affair in India in these times,” said the Indian Captain of an oil tanker now sailing towards China, who has completed eight months on board. This is double the time typically allotted for a ship’s master.

Most of the crew on the ship are on extended contracts. As it sailed for a fortnight in international waters close to India en-route to destination, Cochin port was the best option for the ship owner to drop off the crew.

But, the crew was told that change was not possible at Cochin due to the exorbitant crew change costs.

As the crew change crisis hit the global shipping industry, agents providing the services are seen charging as much as $100,000 dollars to cash in on the situation.

That aside, the loss of hire, bunker and insurance costs for deviating to India from its normal route to discharge cargo, would cost the ship owner another $150,000.

“It is just greed by the agents,” said a Vizag-based seafarer who is currently waiting to join a ship. “These are difficult times and a reasonable increase in costs is to be expected. But, by hiking it by more than 100 per cent, India’s name is being besmirched by such greedy agents. This would have an adverse impact on Indian seafarers,” he said.

A large number of manning agents operating in India are medium to small entities and the high costs will only act as a hindrance to facilitation of crew change, he said. Crew changes carried out at Indian ports since April 22 have mostly been done by big companies. Smaller companies are not even attempting it, given the costs.

“The Shipping Ministry should bring some regulation in crew change costs as the government did when the sanitizer costs went through the roof,” he stated.

Captain Sanjay Prashar, a member on the Shipping Ministry’s National Shipping Board, said that crew change costs have reduced by 50 per cent in May compared to April due to “competition among port agents”.

Seafarers and their families are increasingly becoming restless in the absence of crew change, particularly in foreign ports (not all ships with Indian crew comes to Indian ports) and are venting their frustration on the government, mocking and ridiculing it on the social media, some even calling for the resignation of Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandaviya.

Is this hurting the brand image of Indian seafarers globally?

“This is somewhat complex,” said the Vizag-based seafarer mentioned earlier. “Indians are famed in the maritime sector. We bring skill at an affordable price. Families are venting frustration because whatever actions the government is taking is appearing as a knee jerk reaction instead of a well thought out plan,” he said.

I know, he said, how it feels when we are away from family at these times with no visibility as to when the contract would end. Its stressing and the same is true for families. Rajnish Shah, the captain of bulk carrier ‘Tomini Destiny’, highlighted this when he refused to discharge cargo from his ship at Chittagong port recently because the shore personnel were not following basic sanitation practices.

A ship has a very limited crew, the seafarer explained. Even if one person falls sick, it leads to an increased workload for everyone else. Given the contagious nature of COVID, imagine if 4-5 crew falls sick. Stress apart, the physical and mental toll, the additional work it will entail, is immeasurable, he said.

Indian seafarers have started losing jobs to low-cost, unskilled workers from other countries as crew change turns cumbersome.

“But, that is not due to lower costs alone. Loss of reputation and jobs is a tactic long used by ship owners/managers to drive down crew costs. If India manages to successfully carry out crew change both in India and overseas, it would become a leader and an example in the maritime fraternity and the reputation gained that way would be far better than the projected loss of reputation,” he said.

There are others who say that getting “too worked up” about the situation does not “show Indian seafarers in good light”.

“No one said the job was easy. We knew the pros and cons when we took up sailing. There are many East Europeans particularly from Ukrainians as well as Filipinos who are in need of money and are very willing to do long contracts. In fact, Filipinos constitute 40 per cent of the global seafarers now,” said the oil tanker captain mentioned earlier.

Published on May 19, 2020

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