Crew change humanitarian crisis on course to affect 1m seafarers

Shipping’s most acute logistical challenge of the past 50 years – the crew change crisis brought about by Covid-19 travel restrictions – could soon affect 1m seafarers, Guy Platten the secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) warned at a United Nations-convened event yesterday.

Governments are consigning seafarers to being slaves on what many call their floating prisons

ICS estimates that there are now 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea with a further 400,000 ashore waiting to relieve them, often waiting with little or no pay. If the crisis continues, Platten predicted that 1m seafarers could be adversely affected in the coming months.  

“Without resolution we could start to see a logjam which will impact each and every country in their ability to trade globally. The shipping industry is very pragmatic, and we are adept at finding solutions however this is one issue we absolutely cannot resolve without the help of governments,” Platten told the high-level UN summit.

The risk to global supply chains has belatedly seen major brands such as Unilever, Heineken and Carrefour join in their support to seek solutions to get crew moving more easily around the world.

At the same UN event, held on World Maritime Day, Stephen Cotton, the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) slammed government inaction to alleviate the crew change crisis, declaring that current Covid-19 border and travel restrictions risk creating an epidemic of forced labour and modern slavery as seafarers are increasingly forced to stay onboard working against their will.

“It is deeply shameful that we have reached the unfortunate six-month mark in this crisis, with no end in sight. By not giving seafarers pragmatic exemptions as key workers to get to and from ships, governments are consigning seafarers to being slaves on what many call their floating prisons,” Cotton said, adding: “Unless we get these increasingly fatigued seafarers off, there will be more accidents – there will be oil spills on our shores and deaths on our seas.”

The ITF head said the current situation is bordering on or amounts to forced labour, and all companies have a responsibility to use their leverage to demand urgent government intervention to end this crisis whilst ensuring that their supply chains are free of adverse human rights impacts on seafarers.

In other developments as the sector grapples with its worst humanitarian crisis in living memory, France has proposed compiling a global UN list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes, while Kenya has called for sharing costs globally for a rapid testing plan for major ports.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the world’s top supplier of merchant seafarers and a nation that has in recent months tried to position itself as a hub for international crew changes, a molecular Covid-19 testing laboratory dedicated to seafarers has opened at Manila’s South Harbor.

With a daily testing capacity of around 2,000 and a 24 to 48-hour turnaround time for results, the new facility will cater to the testing requirements for crew-change hub ports controlled by the Philippine Port Authorities.

The country has opened a number of ports to international crew changes lately with Japanese owners in particular rerouting ships to the archipelago. Japan relies on the Philippines for around 75% of its crewing needs and has said it will be sending at least three ships a day for the coming month for crew changes in the country.

The new medical facility in Manila is also intended to be designated as the primary seafarer processing center for all inbound and outbound seafarers in the port of Manila.

The facility provides a one-stop-shop housing satellite offices of the Maritime Industry Authority, Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Quarantine, Bureau of Customs, and the Philippine Coast Guard, to accommodate the inbound and outbound travel requirements of seafarers for ease of transactions.

In the last four months, almost 1,000 ships have called at the Port of Manila for crew change.

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.


  1. These 400,000 mercenaries, what private companies do they work for? Is there any information available on that??
    Which ship managers are billing millions of dollars for their services?

  2. Guy you are correct in saying that this is one issue (and the biggest shipping has faced and will see in the future too) that absolutely cannot be resolved without the help of ALL governments.

    As for the French proposal to ‘compile a global UN list of ports that can be secured to accommodate crew changes’ what good will this do to a crisis that is already here and needs to have been solved months ago NOT in the future! Furthermore, the UN has NO ports, and what jurisdiction would they have to compel a sovereign State to release a port to be listed under a ‘UN list of ports’. This is a matter for ALL countries to deal with, together and separately.

    “It is deeply shameful that we have reached the unfortunate six-month mark in this crisis, with no end in sight. By not giving seafarers pragmatic exemptions as key workers to get to and from ships, governments are consigning seafarers to being slaves on what many call their floating prisons,” – Stephen thank you for saying it as it is in reality.
    What happens next? More words from the international community while seafarers languish in a ‘human-made hell’? Would they like to turn 1.2 m seafarers worldwide into a mass of human beings with severely affected mental health? Many seafarers will pay a high price – emotionally, socially and professionally in the years ahead. How many more should die before the world looks at seafarers differently? Questions that need solutions not just words.

    Is the world pushing seafarers to such exhaustion that they will be compelled to ‘down tools’ wherever they may be (not something I condone BTW) as the ONLY resort to make the world wake up. Where are the voices of TESCO, WALMART, big Pharma, Auto manufacturers et al during this crisis.

    May God Bless and Help ALL seafarers – men and women who are helping to keep other human beings alive during this pandemic, at the cost of their own lives and families’ lives.

  3. Port Denials: What are States’ International Obligations?

    It’s a truism to say that COVID-19 has taken the whole world aback. Two months and a fortnight after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of the virus to be a public health emergency of international concern (or PHEIC), the maritime world is still at particular dismay, as it has to face a large array of port restrictions and denials of disembarkation and embarkation. These restrictions apply to cruise ships, but also to the merchant fleet more generally. In some cases, even the Navy or ships on government service were denied docking, on account of suspected cases of COVID on board. These measures put a heavy burden on shipowners and ship operators, but also on the crew, doomed to remain on board way beyond the maximum duration of service periods, with no clear perspective of repatriation. In the medium term, it is international trade, 90 percent of which is maritime, which will be dramatically disrupted. Yet, the continuity of maritime logistics is essential to most countries supply, including for essential commodities (energy, chemicals, food, consumables including health products).

    Free pratique, non-discrimination and distress in the time of COVID

    By virtue of their territorial sovereignty, States may freely regulate access to their ports (Article 25.2 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). Yet, this principle must be interpreted in light of several international obligations.

    The International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) are the legal instrument adopted to provide a public health response to the international spread of disease. IHR are binding upon all the 194 States member of the WHO. Their purpose is to respond to sanitary emergencies “in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic” (Art. 2 of the IHR). In relation to maritime transport, the principle adopted by this text is that of free pratique, meaning the “permission for a ship to enter a port, embark or disembark, discharge or load cargo or stores” (Art. 1 of the IHR). Furthermore, Article 28.1 states that “a ship or an aircraft shall not be prevented for public health reasons from calling at any point of entry”. Article 28.2 specifies that a ship shall not be denied the embarkation and disembarkation of passengers either.

    Even if they have no general obligation to open their ports to foreign ships, States parties to the 1923 Convention on the International Regime of Maritime Ports have also undertaken to treat equally the ships of all States, including their own (art.2). It is true that the 1923 Convention has not been widely ratified, but the principle of non-discrimination is equally recalled by the 1965 IMO Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic, specifically in relation to sanitary measures and health formalities (Art. 4.7 of the Annex to the FAL Convention; also Art. 42 of the IHR).

    States must allow disembarkation in the event of a medical emergency on board (Art. 2.17-2.24 of the Annex to the FAL Convention). If humanitarian evacuation is not granted, shipmasters may invoke distress as the ultima ratio to get permission to dock (Art. 28.6 of the IHR). However, even if distress may be a credible legal justification, it is far from ensuring an automatic right of entry. States can still appreciate which are the most appropriate means, short of access to ports, to respond to the medical emergency.

    Maritime transport freedoms and public health protection – which balance?

    All these international regulations allow States to adopt more restrictive measures in case of an epidemic outburst. For instance, Article 43 of the IHR provides that, in cases of PHEIC, States can go beyond the recommendations adopted by the relevant international organizations. But even then, States do not enjoy unfettered discretion and must comply with three requirements. Firstly, such measures “shall not be more restrictive of international traffic and not more invasive or intrusive to persons than reasonably available alternatives” (Art 43.1). This is the principle of reasonableness. Secondly, States must rely on scientific studies or WHO recommendations to justify these measures (Art.43.2). This is the principle of objective necessity and proportionality. Thirdly, they must convey these justifications to the WHO (Art 43.3). This is a corollary of the obligation of international cooperation, based on notification and sharing of information. The organization may hence request its members to “reconsider the application of the measures” (Art. 43.4).

    To say that States do not really comply with these requirements would be an euphemism. In practice, they have adopted variously restrictive measures which range from: – indiscriminate prohibitions on access to ports (hardly compatible with the principles of reasonableness and necessity); – to measures discriminating between ships on account of their nationality (which is not permissible); – and to more detailed bans, based on objective considerations, like previous calls in infected areas. A more appropriate approach is specifically based on the health situation on the ship, assessed after appropriate testing. But very few States adopted it.

    Yet, relevant international organizations have adopted recommendations to cope with the crisis. On February 13, 2020, the IMO and WHO adopted a joint statement insisting on the necessity to avoid severe disruption of maritime traffic. Since then, the IMO published several circular letters, providing guidance for States to reconcile public health concerns and the continuation of maritime activities. They call for cooperation between flag State authorities, port State authorities and control regimes, companies and shipmasters in order to guarantee the rights for everyone in this health crisis. In the event that the port State denies access, other interested parties, including the flag State, should be approached. They may be called upon to provide medical equipment and prompt medical care on board the ship. Some States have made efforts to repatriate their nationals stuck on board of infected ships (mainly passengers coming from wealthy countries).

    Seafarers, the forgotten essential workers

    If the repatriation of tourists is well-advanced, the situation of the seafarers (who in their great majority come from developing countries) has hardly begun to be addressed. Yet, under the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (Rule 2.5), seafarers have a right to repatriation or to be granted a safe stay in the country of disembarkation. It is the obligation of the shipowners to cover the related expenses. But it is the responsibility of the flag State to ensure that seafarers rights are respected. Unfortunately, the flag States, especially the flags of convenience, demonstrate a guilty passivity. Facing unprecedented restrictions from port States, deprived of the protection of the flag state and that of their national State, many seafarers are simply blocked at sea. Seafarers’ unions have sounded the alarm. On March 17, the International Transport Workers’ Federation thus pointed out “the failure of flag states to protect seafarers’ and passenger’s health during this humanitarian crisis”.

    On March 31, the ILO also expressed its grave concern with the effects of these measures on seafarers and international trade. IMO also urged States to ensure access to ports for disembarkation, crew changeovers, resupply, repairs, but also to take measures to ensure health protection in ports. Adequate testing, medical assistance and quarantine facilities are essential to the continuation of maritime activities. So far, little echo has been given to these recommendations.

    Wanted: international cooperation in the context of an exceptional crisis

    Some shy signs of hope seem to take shape in the European Union. On April 8, 2020, the European Commission adopted Guidelines on protection of health, repatriation and travel arrangements for seafarers, passengers and other persons on board ships. They aim at ensuring the continuity of maritime transport, while providing principles and mechanisms to respond to the humanitarian and sanitary crises. The creation of a network of designated ports in which embarkation and disembarkation are made possible and safe is central to the EC’s proposals. It remains to be seen whether there will be a follow-up from Member States.

    Multilateral cooperation has been most mistreated and yet is desperately needed in this crisis. The common answer is the only sustainable answer to it. When a pessimist says “things cannot get worse”, the optimist answers “yes, they can.” In the face of COVID-19, let’s be pessimistic for once!

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