Seafarers’ plight in spotlight

The coronavirus pandemic has brought global attention to the plight of the seafarer.

“We have been a lot more in the public eye the past few months and that’s a good thing. We must capitalize on that,” said International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) Secretary-General Guy Platten, explaining that the pandemic has brought to light both the fragility and strength of the global supply chain and the important role seafarers play in it.

Platten said what has captured the media’s attention is “we’ve got 1.2 million seafarers out there and they can’t sail aboard the ships indefinitely.”

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, about 100,000 seafarers’ contracts ended each month and they were flown home. The pandemic halted nearly all repatriations and crew members have been kept on ships long beyond their contract terms. In addition, governments around the world have barred crews from shore leave in efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The topic of a World Ports Conference and International Association of Ports and Harbors webinar on Wednesday was improving the relationships between ports and the shipping industry in the post-COVID-19 era. But panelists Platten, International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Kitack Lim, and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) Chief Executive Ley Hoon Quah focused much of the hour-long conversation on the relationship between ports and shipping as a whole and the world’s governments, citizens and media during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’ve gotten excellent coverage from broadcast media as well as the mainstream print media. For example, we made the front page of the London Financial Times, which is syndicated around the world, on Monday of this week highlighting the fragility of the supply chain … and the crew changes,” Platten said. “These are the sort of issues which are starting to find traction with the public and maybe make them think a little bit more where the clothes they are wearing come from, where the food in the shop comes from, and the fact that 80% or more of goods at some point travel on a ship. That’s something which people are perhaps starting to appreciate.”

Collaboration and cooperation

Platten asserted that the pandemic has brought out the best in the industry.

“I’ve never seen such levels of cooperation from ports, from shipowners, from regulators like the IMO. We need to build on that and actually showcase that best side of our industry and what we can do … with digitalization and carbon reduction and things like that. We need to be in the media for the right reasons and not just when a disaster happens, which has been the case in the past,” Platten said.

Lim agreed there has been “super excellent collaboration and cooperation, particularly among industry groups.”

That has helped bring attention to the crew change situation, Lim said.

The IMO was among the international groups that coordinated to put out a 12-step road map on how governments could end what they called the “crew lockdown.” Lim said the IMO has issued nearly 24 statements and sets of guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. About half of those specifically address the health and safety of seafarers.

“The seafarer has been facing many, many serious difficulties,” Lim said. “About 30% of member countries are providing proper arrangements for crew changes, but the rest still have some limitations.”

Safe corridor

The Port of Singapore has become a model for proper crew changes. 

On June 1, the MPA, in collaboration with the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union, Singapore Shipping Association and Maritime Singapore, released an 11-page guidebook, “COVID-19 Protocol on Crew Change and Repatriation of Seafarers.”

Quah said maritime groups throughout Singapore came together to create a “crew change safe corridor.”

In a speech delivered in Singapore last week on COVID-19 and international shipping, Quah said the MPA has been allowing crew changes in special circumstances since March. 

Those circumstances were expanded after industry feedback. “For example, crew members who have completed their employment contract can now do [a] crew change in Singapore. This is on top of allowing crew change on compassionate and medical grounds. For all medical cases, MPA has allowed for crew change and provided them medical care,” she said.

“However, we are not stopping there. I am pleased to say that the Singapore Shipping Association has taken the lead to look at creative, feasible solutions, [including] chartering dedicated flights to facilitate direct ship-to-plane arrangements, and launched a handbook on crew change procedures in Singapore which the industry could use as reference,” Quah said.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Kim Link-Wills.