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Chinese seafarers land knockout jab in crewing crunch, wage bill spikes

Chinese seafarers land knockout jab in crewing crunch, wage bill spikes
Sam Chambers May 7, 2021

Wage demands for Chinese seafarers are skyrocketing as they become a hot, jabbed commodity, replacing many Indian and Filipino crews around the world.

Wages of Chinese manned ships have been increasing every two months since the middle of last year. In some segments such as tankers, the Chinese crew wage bill is already 5% more expensive than all major nationalities including Indians and East Europeans.

A year-long ban on crew change involving foreign nationals has meant that owners the world over continue to scramble to secure Chinese crew for their newbuildings in yards across China.

Moreover, as related by Kishore Rajvanshy, managing director at Fleet Management, China seems to be the only major crew supply nation where crew joining ships are securing vaccinations unabated.

“With recent bans on flights from India and Philippines, the demand for vaccinated Chinese seafarers has skyrocketed,” Rajvanshy told Splash today.

Ports including Singapore and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates have barred ships from changing crewmembers who have travelled from India in the past fortnight. Other ports have taken even more drastic action – Zhoushan in China, for instance, has banned entry for any ships or crew that have visited India or Bangladesh within the past three months.

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement revealed this week it was temporarily drafting in seafarers from other nations to replace Indians disembarking or scheduled to board ships. Other crew managers are being forced to do the same as Indians are unable to move around the world.

“The regulatory restrictions that prohibit foreign crew change in China leave no choice but to use Chinese crew when shipowners and managers do not have other options to do crew changes in other countries, even if the employers decide to change the crew nationality at a later time,” commented Praveen Shukla, crewing director at Wallem Group, discussing one of largest contributing factors that has caused the surge in demand for Chinese seafarers.

Other factors favouring Chinese seafarers include the fact that liner vessels calling Chinese ports may not have other ports suitable for crew change.

On the dry bulk trades, countries like Australia pose 14-day sea quarantines if a crew change was done on a vessel calling their ports, which makes ports like Manila unsuitable for crew change for vessels trading between China and Australia.

China also has a quarantine requirement for vessels who did a crew change in the last 14 days, hence crew changes before calling China may not be feasible as vessel quarantine would mean loss of hire.

“Whether the escalation in wage demand would sustain or not will as much depend on international travel and crew change restrictions and as much on employers finding the value in the service output of Chinese crew,” said Wallem’s Shukla.

The current crewing crunch brought about by soaring Covid levels in India and increased travel restrictions in the Philippines serves as an opportunity for Chinese seafarers to get experience working with multinational crew and for manning agents to develop business relations with shipping companies that traditionally preferred other nationalities.

China is the world’s top source of merchant seafarers, followed by the Philippines and India, albeit that traditionally a large proportion of Chinese seagoing staff focuses on working for local companies.

“With China already recognising seafarers as key workers and the clear availability of Covid-19 vaccinations, it is likely to provide another edge to Chinese seafarers as countries and airlines start to demand proof of vaccination as a prerequisite for travel approvals,” Shukla observed, adding: “We hear that some managers are scrambling to source available vaccinated seafarers. We believe this has especially affected those managers who didn’t have presence or an established network in China.”

Charterers have been using no crew change clauses and other more sophisticated means to avoid performing crew changes in recent months, a move that has been attacked by trade unions. Moreover, charterers are also demanding for ships with all-vaccinated crews, something that puts sailors from India and the Philippines at a severe disadvantage to their Chinese peers.

Other crews in demand today during the Indian pandemic peak hail from Eastern Europe.

“The Eastern European seafarer employment market is flooded with job offers due to the unfortunate situation in India and also partly due to the limited – and expensive – flights to and from the Philippines,” commented Henrik Jensen, managing director of Danica Crewing Services, a company with strong roots in Ukraine and Russia.

“Ukrainian and Russian seafarers are relatively free to travel and the Covid-19 infection rate is relatively low among them – at least that is what we see from the obligatory PCR tests before boarding the airplanes,” Jensen said.

Another logistical problem faced by Danica and other crewing specialists is finding slots for pre-joining medical check-ups at medical centres which are already at full capacity.

“Although the Covid-19 situation is easing in Europe and the US, looking at the situation worldwide I am afraid we are facing a crew change crisis of the same calibre as last year or even worse,” Jensen said today, echoing comments made by a number of shipmanagers in a report carried by Splash yesterday.

“The crew rotation crisis is far from over. In fact, 2021 is set to be worse than last year, with the recent surge in Covid cases in many crew supply countries making crew change in many cases impossible, due to ports’ shutting down for these nationality seafarers,” warned Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Hong Kong ship manager Anglo-Eastern Univan Group.