Shipping Employers and Trade Unions Give One Month to Ensure Safe Crew Changes

Mike Schuler
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May 14, 2020

Photo: deela dee / Shutterstock

Shipping industry employers and trade unions have agreed to extend seafarer contracts for another month in order to give time for governments and companies to implement the International Maritime Organization protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a Circular Letter issued May 5, the IMO made recommendations to Member States about measures to facilitate ship crew changes advised global industry associations with consultative status at the IMO. 

Each month around 150,000 seafarers need to be changed over to and from the ships to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations for ensuring safety, crew health and welfare, and to prevent fatigue. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, government-imposed travel restrictions have meant a large numbers of seafarers are having to extend their service after long hitches at sea. 

The Joint Negotiating Group (JNG), representing employers, and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) representing seafarers unions and their members, issued a circular letter on Thursday providing a framework of protocols ensuring crew changes can be done safely and as soon as possible amid the unprecedented global crisis. The letter also highlights the critical yet often unknown and overlooked plight of the seafarers and the important role they play in the world economy and society. 

“Shipping is vital to the maintenance of global supply chains, but the current situation is unsustainable for the safety and wellbeing of ship crew and the safe operation of maritime trade,” the joint circular letter states.

JNG is comprised of International Maritime Employers Council, International Mariners Management Association of Japan, Korean Shipowners Association and Evergreen. 

Previously, JNG and the ITF agreed twice to extend the seafarers’ contracts in order to keep them safe from exposure to the virus and also appreciating the enormity of the challenges posed in terms of travel restrictions and flights availability. As a result, a significant number of seafarers have been required to stay on board beyond their employment contract period while others are waiting to be deployed.

Shipping groups have for months warned that the inability to carry out crew changes during the COVID-19 crisis is a ticking time bomb for the global shipping industry. In discussions last week, JNG and ITF agreed that the current situation with regards to lack of crew change can no longer continue as is.

“Seafarers’ fatigue should not be underestimated and the social partners therefore agreed to not extend the contracts, but to support an implementation period of no longer than 30 days (up until 15 June 2020) so that governments have time to implement the framework of protocols as set out in the IMO Circular Letter,” JNG and ITF said in their letter. 

The letter includes five points on which the JNG and ITF have agreed, including allowing up to 30 days starting from 15 May 2020 to ensure safe facilitation of crew changes can take place.

“Finally the ITF and the JNG want to alert Flag States, P&I Clubs, Operators and Charterers that, in the event of the Framework of Protocols for Crew Change not taking effect by mid-June 2020, the consequence of stress related sickness affecting seafarers and their inability to consistently access medical support ashore may negatively impact on the commercial viability of the ship operations,” the letter stated. 

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