Crew change crisis fears as governments increase border closures

The mutated strains of COVID-19 that have seen national governments introduce tougher travel restrictions is threatening to heighten the crew change crisis which has impacted global trade.

Global industry and human rights leaders, including A.P. Møller – Mærsk, BP, BW, Cargill, COSCO, DOW, Euronav, MISC Group, NYK, Rio Tinto, Shell, Trafigura, Unilever and Vale, have all signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change in a worldwide call to action to end the unprecedented crew change crisis caused by Covid-19.

Over 300 organisations have now signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change that defines four main actions to facilitate crew changes and keep global supply chains functioning:

  • Recognise seafarers as key workers and give them priority access to Covid-19 vaccines.
  • Establish and implement gold standard health protocols based on existing best practice.
  • Increase collaboration between ship operators and charterers to facilitate crew changes.
  • Ensure air connectivity between key maritime hubs for seafarers.

The Global Maritime Forum (GMF) has warned hundreds of thousands of seafarers from across the globe have been left stranded working aboard ships beyond the expiry of their initial contracts and are unable to be relieved since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the latest Manpower Report from ICS and BIMCO, the worldwide population of seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships is estimated at 1,647,500 seafarers, of which 774,000 are officers and 873,500 are ratings.

China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine are estimated to be the five largest supply countries for all seafarers (officers and ratings). During normal circumstances, ICS estimates around 100,000 seafarers are rotated every month, with 50,000 disembarking and 50,000 embarking ships to comply with relevant international maritime regulations, governing safe working hours and crew welfare, so that they can continue to transport global trade safely.

At the height of the crew change crisis in the autumn of 2020, the UN International Maritime Organization estimated that around 400.000 seafarers were on their ships beyond the expiry of their contract, while another 400.000 seafarers were unable to get to work.

The GMF added fatigue after long periods at sea has significant consequences on the physical and mental wellbeing of seafarers. It also increases the risk of maritime incidents and environmental disasters and poses a threat to the integrity of maritime supply chains, which carry 90% of global trade.

“We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis at sea. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, seafarers have kept the world supplied with food, energy and other vital goods, with no line of sight of when to go home to their families. They have become hostage of the situation and unable to disembark from their ships. Yet, we can put an end to the crew change crisis without any risk to the general public health,” says Jeremy Nixon, CEO of ONE, a signatory to the declaration.

The Neptune Declaration has been developed by a taskforce of stakeholders from across the maritime value chain including A. M. Nomikos, Cargill, Dorian LPG, GasLog, Global Maritime Forum, International Chamber of Shipping, International Maritime Employers’ Council, International Transport Workers’ Federation, ONE, Philippine Transmarine Carriers, Sustainable Shipping Initiative, Synergy Group, V. Group, and World Economic Forum. Learn more about the Neptune Declaration and see the full list of undersigning companies and organizations here.

“We believe it is essential that all parties in the supply chain—industry, government and non-governmental organizations—work together to find solutions that support the wellbeing of seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Neptune Declaration is an encouraging step forward, bringing together leading industry leaders who are committed to taking action. Our top priority remains not only getting crews off board but also ensuring they are able to travel home safely,” explained Jan Dieleman, President, Cargill Ocean Transportation.

“Seafarers are the key workers that allow vital global supply chains to continue to operate even during a pandemic. I am delighted to see how stakeholders from across the entire maritime value chain recognize that they have a shared responsibility to ensure that seafarers can do this safely,” added Johannah Christensen, Managing Director, Head of Projects & Programmes, Global Maritime Forum

Guy Platten, Secretary General, International Chamber of Shipping warned action had to be taken. “Seafarers are the unacceptable collateral damage on the war on COVID-19 and this must stop,” he said. “If we want to maintain global trade seafarers must not be put to the back of the vaccine queue. You can’t inject a global population without the shipping industry and most importantly our seafarers. We are calling on the supply chain to take action to support seafarers now.”

Fears have grown over the actions of government to introduce stricter travel restrictions in an effort to halt the spread of the virus.

“With the rise of new variants of COVID-19, we are sadly seeing governments backsliding from progress that was made last year and increasing their restrictions again,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation. “Let’s be honest here, the locking of borders to seafarers by governments is directly resulting in the forced labour of the world’s seafarers. Leaving the human indignity aside, this poses an incredibly dangerous risk to the supply chains of the global economy. Right now is the time for every CEO, every Board member, of every company that relies on global shipping, to recognise their responsibility to use their leverage to demand that governments unblock borders to seafarers before this crisis gets worse – it can’t be ignored anymore.”

At the height of the crew change crisis in the autumn of 2020, the UN International Maritime Organization estimated that around 400.000 seafarers were on their ships beyond the expiry of their contract, while another 400.000 seafarers were unable to get to work.