Ship-owners seek vaccinated crew as Covid cases surge in India

P. Manoj Mumbai | Updated on April 28, 2021

Concerns over availability of vaccines and waiting time are adding to the job uncertainty of seafarers

Ship-owners have started insisting on hiring crew who are vaccinated ahead of joining ships on their next contract, as new variants of the Covid-19 virus wreaks havoc in one of the top suppliers of manpower to the global shipping industry.

With maritime hubs such as Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, Fujairah, UK and Canada placing restrictions on crew change involving seafarers with recent travel history to India, ship managers and crewing firms are also backing off from staff swap on ships temporarily.

“We are closely tracking the course of the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak and as an immediate measure have frozen all crew changes outside India for the next 21 days,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Singapore-based ship management company, Synergy Group, which manages some 370 ships.

Beginning May 1, vaccines will be given to people in the age group of 18 to 45, a profile that makes up most of the seafarers. But, concerns over availability of vaccines and waiting time are adding to the job uncertainty of seafarers, already weighed down by disruptions to crew change since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago.

“Ship-owners are saying they want seafarers who are inoculated,” said Captain Sankalp Shukla, Chairman of The Foreign Ship-owners Representatives and Ship Managers Association (FOSMA). “Going forward, ship-owners are asking for vaccinated crew since they know it will take time for the two inoculations,” he said.

The seafarers’ unions are exhorting their members to get vaccinated.

“If you want to continue to be a seafarer, then you need to get the vaccination; companies are only giving employment to those who have taken their vaccine doses,” Abdulgani Serang, general secretary-cum treasurer of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) wrote in a message to members.

“Get your complete vaccine doses and be ready for employment,” he added.

“It’s going to be turmoil for seafarers for the next couple of months,” said an executive with a ship agency firm, as India adds more age groups to the vaccination drive.

The Director General of Shipping has advised seafarers to utilise the vaccination facility at the hospital run by Mumbai Port Trust to get their jabs. Port trust run hospitals at Kochi and Kolkata are also being on-boarded for vaccination, according to an official at DG Shipping.

Seafarers are also looking to complete both the doses ahead of joining ships to avoid uncertainty over getting the second dose of the same vaccine after joining foreign-going ships.

Synergy’s Unni alluded to this by saying that global agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) should prepare a standard list of universally approved vaccines so that seafarers who have got their first dose in one port can take their second jab at some other port while in service.

Ship managers say that temporarily freezing crew change involving Indian seafarers is the only option left for them to deal with the surge in cases in India.

“We can’t risk the health and safety of those on-board. There have been instances where seafarers cleared the RT PCR test in India before flying and turned out positive on arrival at the destination country,” an industry executive said.

Testing itself has become a nightmare as labs are choked, delaying results.

Some 100,000 seafarers need to be changed over every month globally.

“We were hoping that we had overcome several hurdles, when we successfully implemented the protocols for safe crew change-overs, but the re-introduction of travel curbs are derailing efforts made to change crew over the past year. The Maritime Labour Convention, key worker status and safe crew change protocols should apply in all circumstances, not just when convenient,” Unni added.

Published on April 28, 2021

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