Currently, more than 1.6 million seafarers keep the world’s merchant fleet at sea, delivering fuel, medicines, food and equipment to those countries where large portions of the population are currently under curfew as governments try to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, as a number of organisations including Human Rights at Sea and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) have made clear in recent days, the closure of borders and strict quarantine rules are preventing crew changes from being completed in accordance with employment contracts and international conventions including the Maritime Labour Convention.
Namely, thousands of seafarers are now stuck on ships unable to return home. Moreover, for those stranded at sea, conditions are deteriorating rapidly.
In many ports crew changes are simply prohibited. Elsewhere, vessels from some origins are now forced to remain at anchorage in quarantine for up to 14 days before they can dock. To make matters worse, it is also becoming increasingly difficult for crew to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables such are the restrictions placed on port agents and captains. And how are seafarers with medical conditions supposed to get treatments if they can’t leave the vessel?
states Captain Unni.
To solve this problem, he suggests a collective, carefully management of crew changes at designated ports, that could help tackle this crisis However, he added that even if Covid-19 infections subside, putting a plan in place now will be good preparation for the future.
To enable the continuation of world trade without interruption and to protect the human rights and mental well-being of seafarers, Captain Unni is now reaching out to like-minded stakeholders to expedite collective crew changes.
We have already spoken to a number of leading ship owners and they agree this is a positive way forward. We have also identified a number of ports where we think this can be actioned. We are now approaching leading shipping organisations and have contacted the IMO about how we can move this forward with the utmost haste
In any given month around 100,000 seafarers reach the end of their employment contracts and are repatriated, according to ICS.
In addition, Captain Unni commented on the opinion that seafarers are safest at sea waiting this out. He explains nevertheless that nobody knows how long this pandemic will last. As a result, "the inability to enact crew changes is a threat to the mental health of seafarers."
What is more, the problems that seafarers face now, can also disrupt the global supply chains. Mr. Unni expects that seafarers "will only put up with this uncertainty and poor treatment for so long, and rightly so."
We all need to come together and find solutions that help our seafarers and protect world trade