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Crew change crisis – a case of calculated inaction?

Crew change

Asian shipowners are riled up and questioning the persistent case of crew change crisis

Crew change crisis was seemingly all the Asian Shipowners’ Association (ASA) could harp about. If this humanitarian crisis made its way into Asia, concrete actions are warranted. Instead, the rampant inaction resulted in more outrage stemming from fruitless intense advocacy.

Highlighting the crisis
Parties who attended the ASA’s recent Annual General Meeting were steadfastly asserting the severity of the crew change crisis. ASA Chairman, Tadaaki Naito, said that the association highly appreciates the UN Assembly Resolution A/75/L37 last November on key worker status for seafarers. Han Chao, ASA Seafarers’ Committee Chairman remarked now is the time the world acknowledges those seafarers who expose themselves to various adversities to sustain world trade. Han urged all governments to implement the UN Resolution in accordance to seafarers’ fundamental rights under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC 2006).

Adding to the importance of honouring seafarers’ rights, Richard Hext, Chairman of ASA Ship Insurance and Liability Committee stressed, “At the peak of the crew change crisis last year, around 400,000 seafarers were stranded at sea. This figure has mercifully reduced to around 200,000, but is still intolerable.

“It is especially disappointing to see cases of prominent ship charterers, including some who have publicly voiced support for seafarers, demanding the inclusion of ‘no-crew change’ clauses in their charter parties or voyage instructions. Such clauses go against the human rights of seafarers and are in clear contravention of Owners’ responsibilities under MLC 2006.”

Heavyweights join the campaign
It is evident now shipowners and numerous maritime bodies are playing policy analysts – questioning the rationale behind the profound inaction. Global Maritime Forum’s data from mid-April 2021 revealed the first Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator showed 5.8 per cent of seafarers were onboard vessels beyond their contract durations. Within this 5.8 per cent, 0.4 per cent have exceeded 11 months, which clearly violates the Maritime Labour Convention’s (MLO) condition.

Published once a month, the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator is part of the ongoing efforts that a multi-stakeholder taskforce is undertaking to address the crisis. It collates data from 10 leading ship managers: Anglo-Eastern, Bernhard Schulte, Columbia Shipmanagement, Fleet Management (Fleet), OSM, Synergy Marine, Thome, V.Group, Wallem and Wilhelmsen Ship Management. Watson Farley & Williams LLP serves as the legal advisor for the initiative. All the shipping heavyweights have a collective onboard-vessel seafarer headcount of 90,000.

Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group reportedly issued a blunt warning: “The crew rotation crisis is far from over. In fact, 2021 is set to be worse than last year. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in many crew-supplying countries is making crew change impossible, due to ports’ shutting down for these nationality seafarers.”

Kasper Søgaard, Global Maritime Forum’s Research Head, stressed: “The willingness of ship managers to contribute to the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator is a great example of the maritime industry’s desire to work together to address the crisis and help seafarers.”

A clear case of calculated inaction
Inaction can be deliberate, strategic and tactical. There may be a danger of rushing in before an issue has sufficiently matured. At times it may be better for decision makers to wait for more evidence, while buying time to gauge how “hot” the issue is liable to be. Decision makers may also try to protect core goals and minimise risks to these goals.

Despite near-protests from multiple bodies, governments appear to remain stationary instead of acting. Slow implementation from governments, accompanied with the reluctance to rock any existing bureaucracy left the vast majority of seafarers stranded at sea or stuck at home due to travel restrictions. The current outbreak in India is a perfect illustration of questionable inaction.

Can one not be suspicious over the acute passivity demonstrated worldwide? Shutting borders and shunning those who need help the most in the name of protecting the economy is becoming more prominent as an excuse of inaction. A closer look suggests cost might be the real reason. Authorities may also be too focused on particular priorities that it blinds itself to other issues—in effect forgetting how to see, interpret and act upon them.

Take the Suez Canal blockage for instance, vessels had to redirect at their own costs to meet delivery deadlines while the Suez Canal Authority was superbly focused on their legal wrestle with Ever Given’s owner, apart from freeing the stuck ship. Applying the same rationale, when a virus immobilises a vessel (yes, a captain can be infected as well), there are costs to bring the ship and her crew to safety, plus quarantine. The other potential expenses include immigration paperwork, crew change procedures (if allowed at all), and other miscellaneous logistical work.

Governments might be forced to terminate their policies of inaction. Unfortunately, it may take place only when blatant signals about the growing costs and risks of inaction hitherto blindside policymakers. The time when unresponsive institutions start paying attention to issues which they could have done so previously, might be too late.


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