Intercargo: Crew Change Dilemma is "Reaching Farcical Proportions"

Seafarer health screening at the Port of Singapore before the COVID-19 shutdown, January 2020 (PSA)
Seafarer health screening at the Port of Singapore before the COVID-19 shutdown, January 2020 (PSA)

Published Jul 27, 2020 3:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

As efforts to resume crew change proceed in fits and starts in ports around the world, bulker trade association Intercargo raised a warning Monday that the situation is becoming untenable for seafarers and shipowners. 

According to the association, the main obstacles for crew change are 1) finding commercial air travel between the crew source countries and port states; and 2) a lack of commitment from port states' health and immigration authorities to facilitate seafarer travel. 

“The situation is reaching farcical proportions," says Dimitris Fafalios, the association's chairman. "We have seen crew changes refused because a COVID test could not be carried out within the prescribed 48-hour window before the crew’s arrival, despite the journey to the port taking three days.  In some other countries which claim to allow crew change, in fact this happens only if crew can be replaced with the country’s nationals.”

Intercargo reports that about 35-40 percent of the seafarers on cargo ships are over their contracts and 10 percent have been on board for more than a year - a technical violation of the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC).  

"This is inhumane and countries should bear full responsibility for it. Some governments are not facilitating the crew change even for their own citizens. This includes imposing all possible restrictions on crew change in their home country, restricting flights and applying policies which do not allow seafarers to fly to foreign countries to join ships," said Jay K. Pillai, Intercargo's vice-chairman. "More and more countries are prohibiting crew change, though they welcome the cargoes the ships bring to support the welfare of their society."

Intercargo's warning comes as some Asian port states backtrack on reopening their borders to seafarers, imposing more stringent conditions for entry. In June, Hong Kong lifted a requirement for prearrival COVID-19 testing, but it reimposed it effective July 10. Arriving seafarers must now obtain a PCR test with a negative result within 48 hours prior to departure from their place of embarkation. If a seafarer arrives without acceptable test results, it is the company's responsibility to make arrangements for the person to return to their country of origin. Singapore has also tightened up its transit policies again, imposing a 14-day pre-departure self quarantine requirement for arriving crew and giving priority to Singaporean ships and outbound crew only.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) recently called on all shipowners to adhere strictly to crew change protocols, citing alarming reports of ship managers and individuals failing to comply with national guidelines - including reports of seafarers arriving in Singapore with COVID-19 symptoms. “The industry cannot afford to lose the faith and support of governments. The irresponsible actions of a small minority could potentially lead to the shutdown of crew change processes at important shipping hubs, impacting the vast majority of seafarers and shipowners who are acting in accordance with the protocols," ICS said.