International Transport Workers' Federation says shipping's Covid-19 response has turned into exploitation of trapped seafarers.
Fears are growing that remote surveys, online learning and other extra demands on ships crews during the ongoing crewing crisis could lead to more accidents. Rather than calling on non-listening authorities outside the maritime bubble to treat seafarers as key workers and allow them to travel more freely to and from ships, the International Transport Workers’ Federation issued a report this week claiming that measures to keep ships in service had been in place for too long and had to stop. It said governments need to apply the international regulations they have long agreed to at the IMO and stop putting crews and environment at risk.
The report “Beyond the Limit” highlighted how owners had been given wide ranging exemptions to keep ships in service which has been badly impacting the health of crews on board vessels, notably those who have been serving onboard for far longer than their allotted voyage length and still do not know when they will be allowed home.
“It is our obligation as seafarers’ representatives to compile this report because what we are witnessing right now causes us extreme worry. We cannot in good conscience be complacent and allow seafarers’ safety and security to be put at risk,” writes the ITF in the opening page of the report.
It explains its concerns that what it sees as short cuts being given with the blessing of flag authorities could also become permanent further eroding the morale of crews seafarers. The three key areas the report highlights concerns about are the levels of manning being allowed on some ships, the permissions to allow crews to take online courses as ways to keep certificates up to date whilst they are already suffering with fatigue and mental stress, and the increased trend of using crews to assist with remote surveys, which the ITF says benefits everyone apart form the crews themselves.
It wants to see minimum manning levels adhered to and for the trend of reduced minimum manning levels to be stopped, and flag states to stop “rubber stamping shipowners manning levels without due regard to safety.” While it has been campaigning against reduced minimum manning levels for many years, ITF says it has become unacceptably dangerous in recent months as shipowner shave pushed for lower and lower manning levels in the face of the crew crisis brought on by the Covid pandemic.
“This corner-cutting increases pressure on seafarers, harming their mental and physical well being, their lives. Reduced minimum manning intensifies stress onboard and contributes to fatigue because it spreads the same workload across a smaller number of seafarers.”
ITF says that demanding more from a tired and fatigued workforce will be a recipe for disaster. “If ships are not properly manned and seafarers are unable to be replaced, then the ship’s operations must be significantly reduced to take into account the situation. Employers cannot continue to shift more and more work onto fewer and fewer crew members and regulators cannot pretend this is not happening under their noses”.
The impact of overworked crews has also been picked up by insurers. Talking to journalists at the end of the online conference of the International Union of Marine Insurance. Helle Hammer, chair of the IUMI Policy Forum and managing director of Nordic Association of Marine Insurance noted that insurers have the same concerns as the unions and the ITF about the impact of fatigue and growing expectations of ships’crews under increased distress. She said that the three month extensions that have been given by some fag authorities were one thing, but the long protracted uncertainty coupled with changing expectations being placed on crews is another.
Remote surveys done by the crew
And on the issue of remote surveys being undertaken by these over worked and stressed crews, ITF is also highly critical. Travel restrictions have meant that flag authorities, or their Recognised Organization (classification societies) on their behalf, can not get to and board ships to inspect them. ITF says that handing the responsibility from trained paid inspectors to the crew of a ship poses a number of problems under the current conditions. While ITF sees the benefits that come with digitalisation and the ability to use drones and other tools to undertake surveys, it says the practice of burdening stressed overworked crews to take photos and videos of inspected areas and to compete necessary data should stop. “Performing such tasks tacitly requires seafarers to be responsible for guaranteeing the outcome that is, to reiterate, not their assigned responsibilities. The majority of the world’s seafarers in international trade have been forced to continue to work way past the expiration of their initial contracts; some have been onboard for over a year even up to 15 months. In addition, many ships have reduced manning levels because of the challenges with crew change; this means longer work hours for the remaining crew
“The use of remote surveys definitely limits the disruption to everyone except the seafarers – enough is enough, seafarers cannot continue to be the only group to bear the burden”.
The Federation is fearful that using crews to do remote surveys will become a norm in the future, adding that they should only be a solution when the vessel is properly manned with competent crew, t must be the exception to the rule.
ITF and IUMI question continued use of remote surveys as Covid-19 restrictions impact crew welfare and fatigue. The benefits of remote surveys have been thrown into the spotlight as onboard crews continue to suffer fatigue and stress due to lengthened voyages brought on by an inability to pay off their vessels, and for replacement crews to join. As the Covid-19 pandemic