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Where is the outrage over ports’ refusal of crew change?

The way we treat seafarers in 2021 is absolutely shameful, says Bjørn Højgaard, chief executive of Hong Kong shipmanagement giant Anglo-Eastern Univan Group

East of the Suez Canal, crew change is an exception rather than the rule today. And the problem with that beggar-thy-neighbour attitude is that it is a frontal assault on the integrity of the very supply chain that we all rely on, and mostly so by the nations and ports that are the biggest beneficiary of shipping

IN shipping circles these days, it seems that all the talk is about decarbonisation. It’s the topic-du-jour, and whereas I am as passionate as anyone about our industry’s transition to a low-carbon future, I wonder why we as an industry have seemingly so little emotionally vested in the crewing crisis?

Two years ago, seafarers were sent to a ship to relieve a colleague in a matter of days. A pre-medical examination, a few documents to sort out, a plane ticket and off you go.

For seafarers on board, life was predictable, if not ordinary. You knew when you would get off the ship (close to the end of your contract), you enjoyed the occasional shore leave, and, if you were lucky, you would even have your family sail with you from time to time.

Most importantly, if you got injured or sick on board, you knew that you could undergo medical evacuation off the ship anywhere in the world (as long as the vessel was close enough to shore) to receive proper attention and treatment.

The way we treat seafarers in 2021 is absolutely shameful.

Since the pandemic started, crewing departments the world over have scrambled to facilitate crew change against increasingly difficult odds.

Seafarers at home are often unable to get a contract, perhaps because they live in a country with a high coronavirus load. And seafarers on board are increasingly being treated as pariahs, despite the fact that they have kept the global supply chain we call shipping functioning throughout the pandemic — to the immense benefit to people and nations everywhere.

Think about it: Today we often ask even fully vaccinated seafarers to quarantine for a total of 14-21 days before and after their flight to the port of embarkation, and once they do get on the ship, they are asked to self-isolate for another 14 days, to minimise the risk of bringing coronavirus on board.

When they do get into their job, they do so without family-sailing, oftentimes without shore-leave, having to guess if their contract duration will be honoured, and in the chilling knowledge that should they get injured on the job, many nations refuse to take them ashore to treat them. How is that even possible?

Add to that the constant fear of interacting with possibly coronavirus-infected pilots, port officials, immigration and customs officers and stevedores, worrying that someone on board may get an infection with the potential result that the ship is detained and the whole crew isolated. And if you are lucky enough to go through a tour of duty without any adverse event, there’s a risk that your own country doesn't want to accept your repatriation and you have to wait in a port for sometimes months, before you finally find a way home.

Is that really a way to treat key workers, which is what our seafarers truly are?

Without these front-line workers shipping would come to a grinding halt, and with that we would all be without food, clothes, energy and medical supplies in a matter of weeks... something too few people are aware of.

It is not the shipowners and shipmanagers who are being difficult. They are doing everything in their power to execute crew change against a constantly changing but increasingly impossible background.

No, the real culprits here are the ports and nations who decide that, yes, they want the ships and their cargo, but no, they do not allow crew change. Not on my door step! You can do that somewhere else, thank you very much!

East of the Suez Canal, crew change is an exception rather than the rule today. And the problem with that beggar-thy-neighbour attitude is that it is a frontal assault on the integrity of the very supply chain that we all rely on, and mostly so by the nations and ports that are the biggest beneficiary of shipping.

Add to that, it’s a blatant disregard for the humanitarian costs of all this to seafarers from around the world. These often-invisible but absolutely indispensable hard-working individuals, and their families, are suffering because of it.

Mental health issues, including suicide are on the rise. Depression and apathy on board is making navigation, cargo operations and critical maintenance more risky, with potentially grave consequences for lives, the environment and property. And when it does go wrong, the public will blame the seafarers, the shipowners and the shipmanagers for “running a substandard operation”.

But no part of this supply chain is an island, and we cannot do it alone. Without the willingness of all stakeholders — crew, owners, managers, flag and port state, and charterers — the integrity of the supply chain is at risk, as are individual lives and livelihood.

So where is the outrage against the ports and nations that are the real culprits in this crisis? They are having their myopic, egocentric policies because they get away with it, with impunity. Again and again. Nobody is refusing to deliver goods/cargoes to ports that don’t play their important role in ensuring that the 1.5m men and women who serve on board can do so under acceptable conditions.

Charterers are willing to move the cargo, also to ports that refuse crew change — and sometimes even refuse medical support toward emergencies. Shipowners and shipmanagers are willing to put their ships to use for these cargoes, despite the fact that their employees are on the receiving end of these ports’ unsustainable rejection of crew change. And seafarers are faithfully continuing to do their job, even in ports where they are being treated in an absolutely inhumane way.

Adding insult to injury, it makes absolutely no change to these ports’ policies whether the seafarers are vaccinated or not.

I absolutely understand the need for people and communities to be kept safe and healthy. Nobody denies a responsible government the means to do their best to avoid coronavirus in the population.

But no nation can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. Trade is the lifeblood that eradicates poverty and without shipping many nations would run out of essentials in short order.

Demanding the ships and their cargoes call their ports, and at the same time expecting other countries and ports to take the full responsibility of facilitating crew change is truly unsustainable. It is short-sighted and it is wrong.

In a word, it is simply unconscionable.

So what do you think? Why do the ports and nations that have zero-tolerance to coronavirus and therefore zero consideration for seafarers get away with it? Why is there no outrage? And how does it all end?

As it is we already see many seafarers, especially senior officers, refuse to take a new contract, given the current conditions. And it will increasingly be difficult to attract young people of the right calibre to pursue a career at sea. All that lowers the experience and competency levels on board and make shipping more accident-prone.

Completely the opposite of what we have all been trying to achieve for so long.

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