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Crew change humanitarian crisis on course to affect 1m seafarers

Crew change humanitarian crisis on course to affect 1m seafarers
Sam Chambers September 25, 2020

Shipping’s most acute logistical challenge of the past 50 years – the crew change crisis brought about by Covid-19 travel restrictions – could soon affect 1m seafarers, Guy Platten the secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) warned at a United Nations-convened event yesterday.

ICS estimates that there are now 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea with a further 400,000 ashore waiting to relieve them, often waiting with little or no pay. If the crisis continues, Platten predicted that 1m seafarers could be adversely affected in the coming months.

“Without resolution we could start to see a logjam which will impact each and every country in their ability to trade globally. The shipping industry is very pragmatic, and we are adept at finding solutions however this is one issue we absolutely cannot resolve without the help of governments,” Platten told the high-level UN summit.

The risk to global supply chains has belatedly seen major brands such as Unilever, Heineken and Carrefour join in their support to seek solutions to get crew moving more easily around the world.

At the same UN event, held on World Maritime Day, Stephen Cotton, the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) slammed government inaction to alleviate the crew change crisis, declaring that current Covid-19 border and travel restrictions risk creating an epidemic of forced labour and modern slavery as seafarers are increasingly forced to stay onboard working against their will.

“It is deeply shameful that we have reached the unfortunate six-month mark in this crisis, with no end in sight. By not giving seafarers pragmatic exemptions as key workers to get to and from ships, governments are consigning seafarers to being slaves on what many call their floating prisons,” Cotton said, adding: “Unless we get these increasingly fatigued seafarers off, there will be more accidents – there will be oil spills on our shores and deaths on our seas.”

The ITF head said the current situation is bordering on or amounts to forced labour, and all companies have a responsibility to use their leverage to demand urgent government intervention to end this crisis whilst ensuring that their supply chains are free of adverse human rights impacts on seafarers.

In other developments as the sector grapples with its worst humanitarian crisis in living memory, France has proposed compiling a global UN list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes, while Kenya has called for sharing costs globally for a rapid testing plan for major ports.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the world’s top supplier of merchant seafarers and a nation that has in recent months tried to position itself as a hub for international crew changes, a molecular Covid-19 testing laboratory dedicated to seafarers has opened at Manila’s South Harbor.

With a daily testing capacity of around 2,000 and a 24 to 48-hour turnaround time for results, the new facility will cater to the testing requirements for crew-change hub ports controlled by the Philippine Port Authorities.

The country has opened a number of ports to international crew changes lately with Japanese owners in particular rerouting ships to the archipelago. Japan relies on the Philippines for around 75% of its crewing needs and has said it will be sending at least three ships a day for the coming month for crew changes in the country.

The new medical facility in Manila is also intended to be designated as the primary seafarer processing center for all inbound and outbound seafarers in the port of Manila.

The facility provides a one-stop-shop housing satellite offices of the Maritime Industry Authority, Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Quarantine, Bureau of Customs, and the Philippine Coast Guard, to accommodate the inbound and outbound travel requirements of seafarers for ease of transactions.

In the last four months, almost 1,000 ships have called at the Port of Manila for crew change.