The challenges for those serving at sea, as well as the shore based staff supporting them and managing their employment and deployment on board, are as diverse as shipping itself. I see three top day-to-day headaches for a crew manager and the crew on board:
Crew Certification and Licensing
The amount of certificates and licenses a seafarer has to obtain and that then, in many cases, get endorsed by flag states presents a major challenge and headache to the crew themselves and the crew managers in charge of making sure that all the necessary checks have been made. Of course nobody can object to the fact that the people serving in a high risk and international environment such as that of an internationally trading cargo ship have to be properly trained and certified. Yet in a world where digitalization and information technology are bringing people closer together and shortening ways and processes, the almost archaic and unconnected way that many certifying authorities and flag states issue and endorse their documentation is, to put it mildly, irritating.
The troubles range from having to physically send hard copy documents around the world to obtain necessary approvals and endorsements, and then back to the seafarers within very limited amounts of time, through to E.U. and non-E.U. countries not automatically recognizing the certificates and documents issued by other IMO white list states.
The list of administrational burdens that both crew and crew managers have to overcome on a day-to-day basis could continue for quite some time, and the baffling fact is that by just using the advantages of modern communication technology, such as online databases and application and verification tools, many of these barriers could be overcome almost instantly.
Add to that a more harmonized approach by flag states and issuing authorities and joint acceptance procedures within certain national and international organizations and groups, and the maritime industry could quickly make the leap into a better, quicker and easier future for maritime professionals.
Visas and Freedom of Travel
Being a seafarer brings along the need to travel…a lot! First there is signing on, then a prolonged spell on board, visiting many sometimes unwelcoming countries and finally there is the signing off and the journey home. Of course the need for clear travel documentation and controlled entry and exit procedures is something that in times of international terrorism and international embargoes nobody would deny. But again, the number of visas required in advance, the difficulties and time obtaining them, the sending back and forth of travel documents, and the personal appearances required at various embassies around the country of origin is something that could be made a lot easier if unified procedures and acceptance within certain international boundaries could be implemented.
Many crew managers strongly argue that the seafarer’s card and passport along with the employment agreement should be sufficient to allow seafarers to board and leave ships upon sign on / off. Additionally standard visas are often impractical and in many cases expensive measures kick in.
One need only to look at the armed guards stationed at the gangway of a vessel calling a U.S. port where one of the crew members on board does not hold a valid U.S. visa or the routes some seafarers need to take home due to missing approval to travel within, for example, the Schengen zone to understand this topic needs to be reconsidered.
Much has been written on the subject of seafarer criminalization, yet unfortunately the subject remains as topical as ever. The tendency to blame and punish the, in many cases, weakest link in the chain is sadly as evident as ever before. The consequences range from seafarers being unable to go ashore even for an evening or an afternoon, to whole crews being detained for months and in some case years on end in the aftermath of an accident.
The topic is too extensive to cover here in detail, but it has to be clearly stated that the crews on board the commercial cargo vessels around the world are an important part in all our globalized lives, and they deserve to be treated with the same respect and have the same human rights that we all take for granted every day.
Jan Meyering is currently joint managing director at Marlow Navigation and soon to be Crew Director at Columbia Marlow.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.