Sorry plight of Indian seafarers: Neither are they able to sail, nor return home

P. Manoj Mumbai | Updated on May 22, 2020 Published on May 22, 2020

With no indication as to when international flights will start and no standard operating procedures for crew change at foreign ports, the seafaring community is on edge.

Lack of a standard operating procedure for crew change at foreign ports, a stumbling block

Ship-management company, Synergy Marine Group, has been waiting in vain since May 12 for government permission to land a chartered flight in Mumbai to bring back 22 Indian seafarers from Denmark.

Synergy booked a 60-seater plane to repatriate the crew, mostly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, who have spent 8-9 months at sea. The master and 21 other crew had signed off from the now sold vessel ‘Jal Anant’ at Gulfhavn port in Denmark.

To utilise capacity fully, Synergy even offered 40 seats for free to Indian nationals looking to return from Denmark. “We are still waiting for the Indian government to give us landing permission,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO, Synergy Marine Group.

The delay is one of the many instances that demonstrate the confusion and apathy of the government in facilitating crew change of Indian seafarers at foreign ports after the pandemic outbreak.

Chartered flights given the green signal

The Ministry of Home Affairs has allowed chartered flights to take off and land in India with crew. MMS Maritime (India) Pvt Ltd operated a chartered flight from Bengaluru to Colombo to facilitate the movement of Indian seafarers seeking employment opportunities in South Korea.

Italian cruise operator Costa Crociere S.p.A. operated three chartered flights to Goa earlier this week to repatriate 414 seafarers from that state.

“No fresh charter flight permission was given to shipping companies this week,” Sanjay Prashar, a member of India’s National Shipping Board, said while expressing “absolute disappointment” with the government.

There is no cost to the government for chartered flights arranged by shipping companies for transporting seafarers. Unable to understand the delay, Prashar said.

“Seafarers on a ship have a right to return home. Seafarers at home, can’t work from home; they need to be on a ship. It’s simple, yet the government makes it complex. Why keep seafarers under lockdown if they are essential workers,” he said.

“Ships have a schedule,” he said, while urging the government to keep timelines for approvals.

Seafarers on edge

The forced stoppage of crew changeover due to Covid-19 has attracted the ire of Indian seafarers, at a time when tens of thousands of workers are losing jobs in other industries/ sectors in the country. But, ships continue to need crew to transport essential commodities, providing job opportunities to seafarers staying home for months, waiting for their next assignment.

With no clear indication as to when international flights will start and no standard operating procedures (SOP) for crew change at foreign ports, the seafaring community is on the edge.

What has annoyed Indian seafarers even more is the fact that Filipinos, Sri Lankans and even Burmese, some of whom are not even qualified to man large ships such as very large crude carriers, are flying to join ships as fleet owners/ managers are keen to hire crew who are easily available to keep their ships operational.

“Due to current policies and no positive action, thousands of Indian seafarers sitting at home are on the verge of losing jobs and our well-earned reputation,” said a seafarer.” If no action is taken swiftly, Indian seafarers will be history in the shipping industry,” he said, adding that Singapore has allowed crew change from May 22.

Seafarers, on their part, say they are ready to endure pain and inconvenience, travel thousands of kilometres by road, observe quarantine before joining a ship in keeping with the rules, all just to relieve their burnt-out colleagues working on extended contracts.

For those looking to get off their ships and return home, the agony is piling up.

A voyage from the US to China, takes some 52 days. “That’s how long before we call a port for crew change. The delay in releasing the SOP for crew change at foreign ports just prolongs the agony. Seafaring nations such as China and the Philippines are way ahead in facilitating crew change,” said another seafarer, prodding the government to “move fast” on the issue.

As the government fumbles on finalising an SOP for crew change of Indian seafarers at foreign ports, cargo-laden ships are diverting to India en-route to destinations, just to carry out crew change for which an SOP is already in place.

Three Singapore flagged LPG tankers, Pyxis Alfa, Shahrastani and Shaamit as well as the Singapore-flagged ore carrier PSU Seventh are deviating to India over the next few days to sign off crew.

“All these diversions are happening because some owners are concerned about their ships and crew and not because of ship managers. Ship managers are just taking the credit,” said a shipping industry executive.

In fact, some ship managers are “trying to pressure seafarers against raising their voice for deviation”, threatening not to deviate even when the ship owner has given the go-ahead for deviation, he said. “Ship managers, with a few exceptions, are more of a road-block for crew change, he added.

Ship managers, on their part, have blamed the high cost of crew change in India, as a stumbling block.

“When they talk of high costs, they should also talk about the millions of dollars saved during the last three months when no crew change happened,” he said.

There is another reason for such urgency on the part of fleet owners to deviate their ships for crew change.

On May 5, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) circulated a framework of protocols to 174 member states, to ensure 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 gave governments time until June 15 to repatriate crew working beyond their stipulated contract time, by following the IMO guidelines.

The key question facing the shipping industry now is what will happen if India does not re-start international flights by June 15, when the one-month deadline set by the unions to resume crew change ends.

“Even assuming that flights resume, it will be limited and difficult to get seats,” he said.

Published on May 22, 2020

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