Flag states attacked for weak stance on crew change

The crew change crisis shows no sign of abating, still affecting some 600,000 seafarers either stranded at sea or waiting for employment on land.

After a series of tremendous shipping casualties hogged the maritime media headlines in the last five weeks, the crew change issue is now getting back onto the agenda.

In one of the most candid speeches from any shipowner at any industry webinar this year, Hugo De Stoop, CEO of Belgian tanker giant Euronav, has laid much of the blame for the current seafarer impasse on shipping’s desire to act below the radar.

Speaking at a high-level webinar convened by the International Chamber of Shipping yesterday, De Stoop said the current crisis was in no small part down to shipowners’ choice to pitch their businesses in far flung, tiny tax havens.

We built this industry to try to be in the shadows, to try to be discreet, to try to be forgotten

“At the heart of the problem,” De Stoop said during the crew crisis-focused webinar, “is the way we have built this industry in the past and the way we have built this industry in the past is simply to try to be in the shadows, to try to be discreet, to try to be forgotten in fact and that is for the reasons no one wanted to pay tax, no one wanted to be heavily regulated and so they have chosen for most a place of incorporation which are tiny, discreet, influenceable and certainly tax friendly.” This discreetness is amplified, De Stoop maintained, by the fact that shipping is still quite a privately, family-run industry.

De Stoop went on to question what kind of influence the likes of Panama, the Bahamas or the Marshall Islands could bring to bear on the international scene when a major worldwide problem such as the crew crisis erupts.

The webinar’s moderator, Esben Poulsson, chairman of the ICS, argued that the issue of companies “hiding” had changed dramatically in recent years with the large-scale corporatisation seen across much of the shipowning sector.

Poulsson did concede: “We have an industry that has been unable to get faster action on the issues facing us.”

The ICS chair described the ongoing crew impasse as a humanitarian crisis, a term that another panellist, Guy Ryder, secretary general of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), agreed with.

“The international community has done a very bad job in responding to this global crisis. There really has not been an adequate global response to this global crisis,” the head of the ILO said, while praising the shipping industry’s own efforts to fix the problem.

An exasperated Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS, told the attendees of the webinar: “It does seem to me at times that governments are more interested in restarting tourism and getting air corridors up and running than they are about facilitating crew change.”

Platten said that until governments cooperate with the industry and proritise crew change, the issue would remain an “ongoing battle”.

“The international community have been found very wanting during this crisis,” Platten said, adding: “Ultimately unless the supply chain is actually disrupted it’s hard to see why governments would step in.”

ILO’s Ryder offered some solutions urging shipping to apply more “heat” to non-responsive governments, and to form a so-called Friends of Seafarers group creating a political momentum within governments, making it difficult for them to ignore their international obligations.

Earlier this week, Kitack Lim, the secretary-general of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), renewed his calls for the international community to resolve the crew change issue, ahead of the general assembly of the United Nations.

“Seafarers cannot remain at sea indefinitely,” Lim insisted. “If the crew change crisis is not resolved soon, ships will no longer be able to operate safely pursuant to the organisation’s regulations and guidelines, further exacerbating the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Lim reiterated his call to all member states to designate seafarers as key workers providing an essential service, and to implement the IMO-approved protocols to allow for safe and secure crew changes. The IMO secretary-general also insisted on the importance of removing other barriers to crew changes, such as visa and travel restrictions, and of providing seafarers with immediate access to medical care and medical facilities on shore, when needed.   

The UK-based Sailors’ Society said yesterday that the coronavirus represents the worst crisis for seafarers in the charity’s 200-year history.

The charity has given out an average of 16 times more welfare grants to seafarers and their families every month since the crisis began, compared to last year. Many of these are as a direct result of seafarers being unable to work and suddenly plunged into poverty due to the pandemic. 

Sara Baade, Sailors’ Society’s new CEO, said: “This is the worst crisis seafarers have faced since Sailors’ Society was founded more than 200 years ago. We are overwhelmed by the number of appeals for help and our crisis teams are having to prioritise the most desperate cases.” 

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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.


  1. Seriously… another webinar, another group of internal pontifications, all talking to each other and ourselves. Nobody doubts the sincerity of the panel, or the managers, or the owners in needing a resolution. The British Govt. conference as forecast was a hot air balloon, the IMO comments add further air to the discussion.

    We have no lobby that has an sort of leverage. Talking to the Pope and UN means squat. You would expect humanitarian utterances of support from them and all of us. What we need is an industry prepared to take action, to disrupt itself for recognition of the workers. The IMO protocols, the calls for “key workers” mean nothing without execution and if you have world leadership blind to shipping and seafarers you have no execution.

    Execution means flights, visa restrictions lifted for seafarers, borders open for seafarers and collaboration at the highest govt. level.

    Flag states are not to blame, what do you want them to do? Stop your ships for MLC violations? Where are the charterers doing their bit?

    How many are really prepared to look in the mirror and realize the industry has failed itself, the IMO is a busted flush and serious reform is required in the regulatory environment, the brand of shipping and relationships between the stakeholders…. Or do we keep drinking the Kool Aid? Doing the same thing over and over again…

  2. Two truths that need to be highlighted and repeated and one that can be mobilised:
    1) THIS here: ” We built this industry to try to be in the shadows, to try to be discreet, to try to be forgotten” and what a darn good job of it you all did. When transparency and union involvement were being advocated, you all dug deeper until those who have the power now don’t even remember you.
    2)Then THIS here: “Ultimately unless the supply chain is actually disrupted it’s hard to see why governments would step in.” I am asking/suggesting: Would shipowners and managers be so conscientious as to say to their workers let’s drop anchors! That would be the only way. Take a profit cut for a day pressure consumers, charterers and ports to add their support. It’s the land lubbers that need to apply pressure directly.
    AND: I agree with Frank Coles in the above comment!

  3. EURONAV has $312 million cash . Looks like EURONAV managers suspended all crew changes but not the money hoarding!!!!

  4. Great to see Frank Coles calling for the industry to disrupt itself. Now lets make sure that the seafarers now onboard up to 17 months don’t have to fear blacklisting. When will the ICS, IMEC, IMO and ILO all say together that the threat of blacklisting seafarers who are only asking that their basic lawful rights be respected are not threatened with blacklisting.? When?

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