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THE IMO and other organisations have called on nations to recognize ships crews as key workers, and the reasoning is logical. Ships crews are close to breaking point and could soon threaten world trade by refusing to sign new or extending existing contracts, but getting them on and off the ship is one thing. Getting them to and from their homes us another.

While ships crews are more than willing to work extra by staying locked onboard their vessels due to the impact of the global response to the novel corona virus, they are at a mental breaking point being trapped onboard say ship managers and charity groups.

Some port state control authorities are deliberately refusing access for ships at anchorage, despite crews onboard being clearly free of any virus symptoms by being out at sea for more than two weeks.

The International Maritime Organization has now stepped in urging countries to support seafarers and asking the UN to support the push to designate seafarers as keyworkers.

Blind eye

In a recent announcement the Human Rights at Sea Organization suggested that authorities are turning a deliberate blind eye to the growing problem  while ship managers are acutely aware of the mental anguish of some crew and a struggling to keep crews engaged.

Reports are also to be found of crews that have been allowed off their ships being stranded, either near the ports where they left their vessels or in major cities unable to continue their journeys.

Wallem CEO Frank Coles said the approach by some ship owners and associations has been very black and white, with not enough thought to what is going on as crews are pushed to the limit being told to remain onboard indefinitely. While Wallem is trying to change ships crews where possible, he warned about the problems if crews refuse to sign new, or extend, existing contracts.

Frank Coles: Wallem

“These are not conscripts. They are normal people and it can not be safe to have people out of contract, out of mind and in charge of these assets.”

Coles has been outspoken on social media about some port and shipowner responses, and agrees with some of the seafarer charity leaders, such as Roger Harris executive at ISWAN that recently told Fathom World that keeping crews on ships will only build up a bigger problem later on.

Coles has another take, adding that if crews are forced to remain onboard indefinitely then there will be more than half that will be needing to be replaced at one go around the world.

That will be, he said, a logistical and safety risk putting so many new crew members onto a ship in one go (crew changes are normally staggered to allow for vessel familiarisation and handover).

For its part the satellite company Inmarsat announced at the end of last week that it could be halving its costs for crew calling for the next three months. In a statement Ronald Spithout, President Inmarsat Maritime said; “We recognise the unprecedented situation facing seafarers as the global maritime industry responds to the challenges of COVID-19.The work of the maritime industry is more important than ever before, and essential to keeping global trade flowing and ensuring that vital supplies reach those in need.”

Coles is also cautious about the proposition by Synergy ship management CEO Captain Rajesh Unni for ship managers to collaborate on a number of key ports for crew transfers, pointing out that this will be difficult as many vessels are not close to key points and then flights will be needed to be chartered, even assuming all the countries will accept incoming nationals. Some countries that supply crews have locked down borders making it difficult for anyone, even shops crews to be repatriated.

Refusing to extend contracts

With ships crews being away from home already for lengthy periods they may feel forced to decline new contracts. It has already happened on one vessel pointed out Coles. One crew member refused to sign new terms and the vessel has had to get a special exemption from its port state control, but only for one voyage. New crew members need to be found for the vessel in order for its to continue trading.

There are also the growing number of cruise vessels, now void of passengers but still with crew members onboard but unable to  go anywhere, and even being denied provisions and fuel.

The rush for an industry wide response to this is growing, with calls for countries to open borders for key workers such as ships crews, with provisions for containment.

Painting too rosy a picture

In an opinion piece (found here on Fathom World) Human Rights at Sea Chief Executive David Hammond wrote:

“We are rightly hearing the positive and often stoic narratives of those seafarers who are staying onboard, keeping calm and carrying on, maintaining global supply lines and remaining at sea for the global common good. We sincerely thank them.”

“But what we are not hearing on any scale from within the maritime sector and some organisations, are the real details of the alternative reality and of the uncomfortable stories reflecting the consequences of those not fortunate enough to have support of the big commercial companies who are pushing this stoic messaging. Without this, we have an incomplete and less-than-transparent picture of what is occurring.”

David Hammond: Human Rights at Sea

He wants to see  a more level reporting of the facts. While some shipping companies are wiling to tell their positive stories, there are, he fears, a number getting brushed under the carpet.

Questions must now be asked of whether is there a deliberate suppression of the facts and ground-truth, particularly for those seafarers who are not being currently employed but are in the crew management system, careless under-reporting, or just a convenient avoidance of the inconvenient truth behind the ongoing suffering of seafarers and their families during the COVID-19 crisis?

 The charities, ship managers such as Wallem, and Fathom World want to see a fair representation of seafarers. There has been a clear focus on crew mental health in recent years. This is not the time to show this is just lip service.

Ships crews can be asked to work hard and often will. But some are now being pushed too far, expected to remain trapped onboard, or if not onboard then in the port of disembarkation unable to get home. There are others screaming to get back to work because they need to earn money for families that are now facing the hardships of the corona virus response.

Crews may start reusing to sign new contracts, they can refuse to work more and in doing so they could have a devastating impact on global trade. This is not the time to test them.

Note: This story is an update of an earlier story written about the threat to crew health

About Author

Craig Eason Stockholm
Craig Eason is the owner and editorial director of Fathom.World. He has a background in the shipping industry having started his career as a cadet on oil tankers and gas carriers before becoming a navigating officer on a range of vessel types. A change in career, with ensuing university studies, and he has now gained 20 years experience in written and broadcast journalism. He now is in demand as a knowledgeable and competent editor and event host and moderator, both for in-house events and ones for the public.