India File

How Covid-19 has disrupted shipping operations and seafarers' lives

P Manoj | Updated on July 14, 2020

Disoriented lot Depression, anxiety, stress and insecurity are at their peak among seafarers, both on-board and ashore


Covid-19 has dealt a cruel blow to over two lakh seafarers and their families, by disrupting shipping operations and schedules. P Manoj reports

Dhyan Ramakrishnan, 28, a seafarer of third officer rank hailing from Payyoli, a municipal town in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, does “farming and gardening for his physical and mental well-being”.

He has been ashore for ten months. His efforts to join a ship have been delayed due to travel restrictions imposed by governments world over to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dhyan is frustrated at the long wait to join a ship on his next contract, managing his finances tightly in the absence of any income.

In Varanasi, Varsha, wife of chief officer Pankaj Gupta, is disappointed that her husband is not home after his original contract ended in mid-March.

Seafarers are keeping the global supply chain moving and fulfilling the needs of nations but are not allowed to disembark on completion of their contracts.

“I am not just talking about my husband, there are thousands of people who are still stranded on ships. Neither are they able to work properly on the ship nor can they come back home,” she explains to BusinessLine.

Varsha lives with her three-year-old son and 75-year-old father-in-law, who underwent surgery in January. The child also had a surgery in February and was admitted to hospital for three days. “I managed all this alone. Now, I am also diagnosed with uterus tuberculosis. I have to visit the doctor frequently. At this time of epidemic, I cannot go outside with a child. Now it is very difficult to manage this situation alone,” she says.

Due to Covid-19 and the lockdown, it was not practical for Gupta’s company to sign him off, though his reliever is already on-board. “Now, governments and many companies are taking the initiative for crew change, but I am not seeing any positive response and efforts from his company,” Varsha says. “They are waiting for resumption of international flights while saying the Vande Bharat Mission flights are not for seafarers.”

“I can’t explain my physical and mental condition. With every passing day, I am getting more and more frustrated. I want my husband at home. We really need him,” she adds.

The outbreak of coronavirus and the consequent travel restrictions across the world and the lockdown in India have hit the maritime industry hard in terms of crew change and repatriation of seafarers.

Travel restrictions have also doused the job prospects of Indian seafarers working on foreign-flag ships due to their inability to join ships at foreign ports. The restlessness of crew working on board and those waiting on land for their next assignment is palpable. Seafarers on board were unable to sign off from ships after their contract ended due to stoppage of international flights to return home. They had their tenures extended, posing a humanitarian crisis to the global shipping industry, not to mention the safety of ships and the cargo.

Big Indian shipping workforce

Shipping is one of the very few industries that continue to run, carrying cargo including essentials such as medicines, food and energy, during the worst pandemic to have hit the world in many decades. While the virus has ravaged businesses and taken away tens of thousands of jobs on land, shipping is one industry where employment is still available. This is because of the nature of the industry where crew rotation every 4-8 months on ships is the global rule.

Each ship has a minimum manning number stipulated by global laws. If that is breached, the ship is considered unseaworthy and cannot sail.

Government authorities and industry representatives have sensed they have a problem on their hands. After all, India is one of the top suppliers of crew to the global shipping industry. The country has 2,08,800 seafarers employed on Indian and foreign-flag ships, accounting for about 10 per cent of the global seafarers and is ranked the third largest supplier of crew to the global shipping industry.

India’s role in world trade is small in relation to its shipping workforce, as a result of which ships are not contracted to touch Indian shores too often. However, due to the breakdown of logistics (air travel and visa clearances) worldwide, Indian staff are not able to hand over duty to those on the next leg of the trip. Their contracts are extended for months on end. This leads to crew fatigue, with serious implications for ship safety and cargo.

India was the first to design a detailed standard operating procedure to enable crew change of Indian seafarers at Indian ports and anchorages. It is also the only industry whose employees have been allowed to travel abroad for the purposes of crew change using chartered flights.

These efforts have eased the situation only a wee bit as the complex, time-consuming approval processes for bringing back seafarers on the return leg of chartered flights, the challenges involved in moving seafarers from distant places to airports in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai for onward journey and vice versa, the constantly changing rules in crew change hubs overseas, lack of visas due to closure of embassies and visa offices and the closure of maritime training institutes, critical for revalidation of seafarers’ certificates — continue to roil the industry.

Ship owners and managers have also resorted to the last and expensive option of diverting ships from their normal course to the anchorages of Indian ports just to drop off crew and for on-board replacements. The diversions entail loss of revenue to the ship owner as the ship is considered to be off-hired during such detour, besides the extra insurance costs.

“The situation has eased substantially as far as backlog cases are concerned. However, crew change being an on-going process, the effort needs to continue on a sustained basis,” says Amitabh Kumar, Director General of Shipping.

More than 1,00,000 Indian seafarers are on board ships at any given point. Between May 19 and July 9, 224 charter flights run by ship management and crewing firms have helped 15,538 seafarers (including staff employed on cruise liners) to return home and about 7,610 to join ships overseas. Besides, some 17,000 seafarers have signed off from ships calling at Indian ports and some 7,000 have boarded ships since March 23.

The difference in the number of seafarers who have signed off and signed on is an indication of the number of jobs lost by Indians, say industry officials.

Key workers but ignored

Four months into the lockdown, the shipping industry is still waiting for the world to recognise seafarers as key workers. A call by several international agencies, including the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the International Labour Organisation and even the United Nations, to designate seafarers as key workers to facilitate their free movement has fallen on deaf ears of governments, including in India.

This treatment to an industry that carries over 90 per cent of world trade only shows how little has been done, says Deepak Singh, a Delhi-based third engineer waiting for his next ship since August last year.

Many companies cannot afford charter flights. In fact, seafarers working in smaller companies are forced by their manning agents to extend contracts, says Kolkata-based Captain Kunal Das, who has been at sea on board a bulk carrier for over eight months now.

Depression, anxiety, stress and insecurity are at highest levels in seafarers both on-board and ashore.

“It is difficult to understand why, even as they deliver the products we need to survive the current crisis, seafarers are being denied basic human rights,” says Captain Rajesh Unni, Founder and CEO of ship management firm Synergy Group.

To all intents and purposes, seafarers are enslaved to global trade. By denying them freedom of movement, seafarers are imprisoned in their place of work, he says.

“The shipping industry has done everything in its power to bang the drum loud and hard about their plight, but progress is proving painfully slow. We need a systematic approach to crew changeovers, not ad hoc sticking plasters. We need airports opened up, and aircraft landing slots and clearances granted with far more urgency. We need visas to be fast-tracked. And, more than anything, we need politicians and civil servants to help us cut through the red tape,” Unni adds.

Too little, too late

Whatever the Indian government has done, the bottom line is that it’s all too little too late, says Kalpesh Dave, a third mate, from Pune.

“We are chartering flights, pooling ships to and from ports and mobilising enormous resources and efforts for very little gain,” says Bjorn Hojgaard, chief executive officer at Hong Kong-based Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, one of the world’s top ship management companies.

“Despite IMO together with industry having served up the operating procedures for safe crew change to governments worldwide and despite the repeated appeals from industry organisations about the need to act now, the relaxations that we have seen are not enough to even catch up with the backlog of delayed relief. As a consequence, stress and anxiety, both with the people on board the ships but certainly also with their colleagues ashore who have been anxiously waiting for a contract and a ship, continue to grow,” says Hojgaard.

The closure of maritime training institutes is another key area of concern for seafarers whose employment certificates have expired or are expiring soon and need to be revalidated.

To provide relief and facilitate jobs, the Directorate General of Shipping (DG Shipping) has extended the validity of seafarers’ certificates that are expiring on or before December 31 till December 31, 2021. The DG Shipping has also framed the standard operating procedure for revalidation of certificates of seafarers intending to join ships prior to October 31.

This is because seamen whose certificates are expiring in January, February and March 2021 are not being considered for allotment of ships and will remain jobless. Employers typically demand at least 6 to 12 months validity of all certificates prior to joining.

Seafarers say that resuming international flights is the only solution for smooth signing off and joining ships. This is a call the government has to take. But this does not look like happening in the near future. For the time being, the ordeal of crew on the high seas continues.

Published on July 13, 2020

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