BY ANDREW MWANGURA
(The writer is a maritime expert and former seafarer based at the Port City of Mombasa)
As seafarers throughout the world get ready to set sail, June 25, the Day of the Seafarer this year 2020 is abnormal as hundreds of them are quarantined aboard their ships without the luxury of any seafarer activities.
The imposed restrictions as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic has curtailed not only all stripes of the seafarers’ mobility, but also the Coast Guards, the Navies, the cruise ships, the marine biologists and the fisherman.
In fact, the coronavirus has dealt a huge blow to the over 90 per cent of global trade done by sea occasioning blatant price hikes of commerce and industry after the most cost-effective way to transport goods fell under strict operational health regulations.
The inability to conduct regular crew changes has emerged as one of the most critical issues facing the global shipping industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
SAFE WORKING HOURS
Each month, more than 100,000 seafarers are subject to crew change in order to comply with international maritime regulations governing safe working hours and crew welfare.
However, in the early months of the pandemic January-February 2020, flag states requested to extend employment contracts and certificates in order to keep trades flowing.
Although some countries have moved to facilitate crew changes, an estimated 200,000 seafarers still remain stuck at sea, working on expired contracts while caught up in this pandemic crisis.
This escalation may take an ugly turn on the safety and humanitarian issues of seafarers and even disrupt the global trade if immediate measures are not taken to safeguard the sea crews’ welfare.
Due to the nature of COVID-19 and the global death toll which stands just over 450,000 as at June 18, 2020, quarantine is a necessary measure and vital to the protection of the wider population.
Although the issue of responsibility of repatriation has been largely settled; a serious debate has exploded on whether ship owners are liable to pay for the necessary quarantine costs in the home state of repatriated seafarers.
MARITIME LABOUR CONVENTION
The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, sets out that seafarers have the right to repatriation at the ship-owners’ expense after serving on a ship for 12 months, or upon request when the employment contract expires.
In order for a new contract to be issued, both the seafarer and the company must agree on the terms, giving the seafarer the right to refuse the extension. Seafarers also have the right to be repatriated at no cost to themselves under certain circumstances.
Recently, the ILO has been campaigning for all countries to officially recognize COVID-19 as an “occupational injury” meaning the ship-owners would have a clearer responsibility to protect them as far as practicable.
This implies that stricter protocols, sufficient personal protective equipment of the correct types and testing and tracing and tracking protocols becomes readily available.
The ILO also wishes to have a rebuttal presumption to indicate that, for seafarers, the disease is presumed to have arisen out of the course of their employment unless conclusive evidence is provided otherwise.
They also wish to have the definition of workplace to include “travel to and from work.” These measures would mean that shipowners would be more effectively and clearly held responsible and liable and negligent shipowners would be subject to appropriate penalties.
A 12-step plan for crew changes, drawn up by the industry and unions with the IMO, which published the 55-page document, has been out for a month now, which should have given individual governments’ time to formulate how these can be adapted to local regulations.
The industry needs to continue putting pressure on governments at both international and national levels so that a new normal for crew changes can be established in key locations worldwide.
COVID 19 RESTRICTIONS
Despite the difficulties in conducting crew changes due to restrictions around the world to curb the spread of the COVID 19 pandemic crew management companies such as the Hong Kong based Fleet Management has scored considerable success in India and China.
The crewing company has managed to arrange the crew changes of 1,127 seafarers worldwide, the majority in China and India.
The Hong Kong-headquartered ship manager claims the highest number of crew changes in India under its nationwide lock down with 432 seafarers across 34 vessels and 12 ports.
The crew manager has also seen 609 seafarers undergo crew changes in China, and 84 in the Philippines.
Many countries have tightened regulations of crew changes and barred all international crew changes.
If we want to ensure supply chains remain open, and essential goods including food, fuel, raw materials and vital medical supplies continue to flow into the country, it is vital that seafarers and maritime workers can move between countries without imposition.
The technical complexity of ships and the hazardous environments they operate in require the professionalism of officers and crew to ensure the safety of the vessel, its cargo, and the seafarers on board.
Extended service on board, coupled with the stress about COVID-19 and its effects on them and their families at home, and may result in safety being compromised on board.
The ability to plan and carry out a crew change is essential to maintain the continuity of shipping and the supply of essentials. The health and safety of seafarers must remain a top priority.
We are calling on the designation of seafarers as key transport workers as they play an essential role in moving goods, fuel, medicine, equipment, and critical supplies to places in need.
The government of Kenya recently announced the introduction of two-week quarantine on people coming into this country. The measure will apply to sea, road and air passengers.
We urgently call on the Kenya government to provide the industry with clarity on this issue.