UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency released a Marine Notice focusing on seafarers’ employment agreements amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
s the situation remains uncertain, with some port restrictions re-instated in response to a resurgence in outbreaks and the identification of new variants of the COVID-19 virus, problems are continuing in many areas and many crew members have been working onboard for significantly longer than originally contracted for. This raises serious concerns about seafarer wellbeing and the risk of fatigue affecting safety on board.
According to the circular, seafarers have a right to be repatriated:
- where the Seafarer Employment Agreement (“SEA”) expires.
- when the SEA is terminated by the shipowner.
- when the SEA is terminated by the seafarer in accordance with the terms of their SEA.
- when the seafarer is no longer able to carry out their duties under their SEA or cannot be expected to carry them out in the specific circumstances.
Planning for crew changes
While the UK will continue to work for key worker status for seafarers globally and for universal recognition of international protocols for crew changes, it now seems likely that national and local measures to combat the COVID-19 virus will continue to affect transit and travel for many months, often at short notice.
For seafarers now joining ships, shipowners and manning agents should give consideration to:
- Length of contracts, so that if there are last minute obstacles to repatriation, seafarers do not exceed the permitted maximum time on board.
- Selection of planned locations for crew changes.
- Where possible, negotiation of flexibility as regards routes and operating patterns to ensure timely crew changes.
The Officers of the ILO’s Special Tripartite Committee on the MLC have advised that no charter contracts should contain clauses preventing necessary crew changes from being conducted, as such clauses could negatively affect the safe operation of maritime trade and the protection of the well-being and contractual rights of seafarers, as well as putting shipowners in a position of non-compliance with the MLC, if necessary crew changes are not permitted by the charter.
Seafarers who are onboard UK vessels longer than originally contracted for reasons connected with the COVID-19 virus
Extension of seafarers’ employment agreements (SEAs) should only be used as a last resort and the shipowner should make every effort to repatriate the crew in the first available port once the SEA has expired.
Any delay to repatriation or deferral of their annual leave (except with consent) should only occur where it is impossible to safely repatriate seafarers because of circumstances outside the control of shipowners. Seafarers must be repatriated as soon as those circumstances are no longer present.
However, it is recognised that there are still situations where crew changes are not possible for a variety of reasons. In all such cases, the shipowner should consult the seafarers and obtain their informed consent as regards any further extension of their SEA and agree mitigating measures to avoid fatigue and to support seafarer well-being.
Seafarers have the right, and should be enabled if they wish, to contact their trade union for advice. A SEA, or any extension to it must be agreed by the seafarer in conditions where they have an opportunity to review and seek advice on its terms and conditions and freely accept them before signing.
In situations where neither the shipowner nor the seafarer is able to exercise free choice as regards repatriation , seafarers should nevertheless be fully informed as to the situation and given the opportunity to ask questions and take advice.
Where SEAs have been or are to be extended because of restrictions due to the COVID-19 virus
- for more than 30 days longer than their original contract; or
- for more than 50% longer than the original contractual obligation, whichever is less, the shipowner must inform MCA.
Upon receiving notification that SEA extension are required, the MCA will provide a blank copy of our ‘SEA Extension Spreadsheet’, this will include all the information we need for each SEA extension application. This information is required for us to ensure we are aware how long seafarers have been on board, and where, how and when they are being repatriated.