In the midst of a crew change crisis that has gripped the global shipping industry, a top global ship management company has started pushing the Indian crew on some of the ships managed by it to sign extension of contracts.

The move comes at a time when seafarers, including those from India, have been clamouring for sign-off from ships after ending their original contract tenures.

But, this exercise has been halted by the lockdown restrictions imposed by nations to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and the stoppage of flights has derailed the movement of seafarers to reach their homes after disembarking, or for their replacements to travel for joining a ship on the next assignment.

As a result, large numbers of seafarers are having to extend their service on board ships after many months at sea, unable to be replaced after long tours of duty or be repatriated via aircraft to their home countries, an issue that has caught the attention of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

‘Unsustainable situation’

“Shipping is vital to the maintenance of global supply chains, but the current situation is unsustainable for the safety and wellbeing of ship crew and the safe operation of maritime trade. Each month about 150,000 seafarers need to be changed over to and from the ships which they operate to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations for ensuring safety, crew health and welfare, and the prevention of fatigue,” the IMO said.

On Friday, the Indian chief officer on an oil tanker stepped down from his role while at sea, citing “mental and physical exhaustion” that had led him to “lose focus and judgement” in discharging “duties and responsibilities on-board”.

A few days ago, another Indian chief officer employed on a different ship, resigned while at sea somewhere in South Korea, citing the same reasons.

On May 5, the 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.

Extending contracts

Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern, which manages more than 600 ships, has sent letters to some of its ships on Friday asking the Indian crew to sign extension to their contracts by as much as three months, said an industry official briefed on the development. The extension is being sought for those on-board whose contract has ended or is ending on or before June 15.

“Anglo-Eastern is doing this just to be on the safe side,” he said.

According to the IMO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) which has been ratified by the Indian Parliament, a crew on-board cannot work with expired contracts.

“If they (Anglo-Eastern) have an extension letter signed by the crew, they can say he asked for the extension and delay the sign-off further. This is why Anglo-Eastern is pushing Indian seafarers on its ships to sign contract extensions. They will say, it is the seafarers who have agreed for it,” he said.

It is not unusual, though, for ship managers and owners to go for contract extension of crew while at sea to comply with port state control (PSC) inspections and the checks carried out by oil majors before loading and unloading cargo in the case of oil tankers.

Such inspections typically look at the validity of the ship’s certificates as well as those of the crew, including their employment agreement.

“But, for ship managers to go for contract extensions in this extreme situation also is a very clear indication that they are not pro-seafarers,” he said. “They are just trying to hype the extreme costs of crew change at Indian ports just to divert attention,” he added.

The global crew change crisis is heading towards a potential messy end.

If the governments, globally, don’t ease travel restrictions, to facilitate crew changes, or if the crew members decline to sign contract extensions, the number of personnel on board will fall short of the minimum set by the safe manning rules, rendering the ships unseaworthy and unfit to sail. This would disrupt oil, dry bulk and container supply chains.

SOP for crew change

While India has allowed crew changes of Indian seafarers at Indian ports from April 22, it is yet to frame standard operating procedures (SOP) for crew change of Indian seafarers at foreign ports.

Following strong lobbying by the shipping industry, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Friday allowed Indian seafarers stranded overseas to return on flights chartered by their employers.

The scheduling of such flights would be done in consultation with the Ministries of External Affairs, Civil Aviation and the States to which the flights are planned.

Further, Indian seafarers looking to join ships at overseas ports have been permitted to travel on non-scheduled commercial flights departing from India under the Vande Bharat mission, or on charter flights arranged by shipping companies subject to clearance by the Shipping Ministry, according to the office memorandum issued by the Home Ministry.

The procedures for permission to run charter flights are expected to be issued by the Directorate General of Shipping soon. “Hopefully, the first charter flight for normal crew change is likely to depart next week,” said a government official. Ends/

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