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Crew change crunch sees ITF okay contract extensions

Crews keen to either get home or start work are facing unprecedented delays with the trade union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), giving the effective green light for shipmanagers and owners to extend time onboard through to April 16.

In a letter seen by Splash that was sent yesterday to all its affiliates penned by ITF’s maritime coordinator, Jacqueline Smith, the trade union states: “In order to mitigate problems surrounding the replacement of crew, the ITF has decided that during the period from 17 March 2020 to 16 April 2020, it will not challenge extensions of contracts of up to one month, even when these push the seafarers service periods past the maximum allowable by relevant ITF approved CBA [or MLC], provided individual seamers consent to such extensions.”

The news comes as some shipping lines have already made public their intention to keep staff at sea through to next month given the increasingly few ports where crew change is now possible thanks to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Maersk, for instance, announced yesterday that all crew changes for all its boxships will be suspended for four weeks until April 14.

“The decision is based on the need to keep our crew safe while maintaining operations as normal as possible,” the Danish shipping giant stated yesterday.

The International Labour Office, which serves as the permanent secretariat for the International Labour Organization, last week ruled that flag states can forgo Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) annual leave entitlements for crew thanks to coronavirus containment restrictions.

“The Office is of the view that the competent authority may authorise – within specific limits – exceptions to the prohibition to forgo annual leave under Standard A2.4, paragraph 3, of the MLC, 2006 for imperative reasons of public health emergency such as the need to contain the current coronavirus outbreak,” the labour bureau stated in an advisory.

The issue of crew change will be discussed at an emergency meeting tomorrow convened by the International Chamber of Shipping with national shipowning bodies set to debate the topic.

Guy Platten, secretary general of ICS, told Splash yesterday: “The issue of crew change that has arisen due to the coronavirus should be of particular concern to the international community. Every day, seafarers across the world are providing a front-line service to the global economy. Limitations on crew change have the potential to cause serious disruption to the flow of trade.”

ICS has been working hard on the issue of crew change for some time now, having provided input to the EU whilst liaising with major international bodies such as the WHO, IMO, ILO and many others.

Global dry bulk shipping association INTERCARGO yesterday sought leniency from the international community when it came to the issue of crew change over supply chain fears.

“INTERCARGO wishes to highlight the logistical challenges with the repatriation of seafarers who have completed their sea service and seek their relief and re-joining their families. Though their colleague seafarers are standing by on shore in their home country, the relief process is stalled as many port states have imposed local regulations, travel and quarantine restrictions due to COVID-19, despite the IMO circulars to be mindful of free access to seafarers. In many cases neither the seafarers nor the companies know for how long these may prevail,” the lobby group stated in a release.

INTERCARGO went on to urge IMO member states and all port states adopt a pragmatic approach in assisting shipowners and seafarers to overcome these challenges by removing undue hinderance for seafarers to leave or join a ship in their ports.

“Seafarers need our support and compassion with measured, rather than overzealous, restrictions in relation to COVID-19. Without efficient crew changes, the supply chain would break down leading to basic product shortages and greater hardships for people around the world,” INTERCARGO stated, concluding with the warning: “Banning crew changes in ports brings high risks to crews, ships, ports and society.”

Not only are the numbers of ports available for crew change becoming rarer by the day, in some territories the situation has been aggravated by further restrictive measures. For instance, Splash reports today on how Queensland in Australia has just instituted a 14-day restriction for any ship or crew calling from overseas.

For those stuck working at sea they also now face the challenges of taking on supplies.

Seafarers could be the ones to suffer as ships find themselves unable to take on essential medical supplies and provisions as the extent of the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold around the world, the International Shipsuppliers & Services Association (ISSA) has warned.

The decision by some ports to refuse certain vessels entry because of previous port calls at coronavirus-affected areas has meant that some are left to sail off without taking on the vital supplies they may need.

This can mean that seafarers may be left without vital medicines and provisions as well as important spare parts.

Saeed Al Malik, president of ISSA, commented: “Ships need supplying and while it is important that our members adhere to the health advice and terms and conditions of the ports they are servicing, shipowners and port and terminal operators need to work closely with our sector to ensure their ships and crew are looked after effectively.”

Norwegian maritime conglomerate Wilhelmsen has been providing a daily updated map of port restrictions around the world (see below).

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Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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