Seafarers at “breaking point” over crew change crisis

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On World Maritime Day, key industry players have pleaded with governments to help get stranded seafarers home.

A webinar, co-hosted by the IMO, ILO and the UN Global Compact on ‘COVID-19 and Maritime Crew Changes: A humanitarian, safety, and economic crisis’ heard that crews are at “breaking point” with some even being onboard for 17 months with many crew changes deemed impossible during the coronavirus pandemic.

The event heard first hand from a seafarer, Captain Hedi Marzougi, who had personally experienced being onboard a vessel during the pandemic and who, along with his crew, had to serve an extra three months on the ship.

He told how life onboard changed immediately when the pandemic broke out with crew showing severe strain, and how they were impacted by not knowing when they would return home to their loved ones.  He said it had led to “deep despair” and the feeling that no one cared about them.

Capt Marzougi acknowledged the help from associations and various sectors of the industry, but said what really needed to happen was for seafarers to be made key workers and that the crisis was far from over.

“Mariners are human beings first and need to be treated as such,” he told the webinar, which was moderated by Sturla Henriksen, Special Advisor on Oceans to the UN Global Compact.

In a statement, Sec retary-General of the United Nations António Guterres warned “fatigued seafarers cannot operate indefinitely” and renewed the call for governments to formally identify seafarers as keyworkers, while Kitack Lim, Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization – a former seafarer himself – said: “Ship safety is in the balance just as seafarers’ lives are being made impossible.”

He said safe ways needed to be found to get seafarers on and off ships and asked “what will it take to resolve the crew change crisis?”

Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, said that although the industry was collaborating to help this had unfortunately not been enough and despite continued efforts, problems continued to escalate.

He cited the extension of contracts as “forced labour” and said seafarers are at “breaking point”.

He pleaded with heads of state to cut out “inter-department differences” and to lead by recognising seafarers as key workers.

“Right now, more than ever, the global economy needs shipping and shipping needs seafarers,” he said.

Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping said warned that unresolved, the crisis had the potential to disrupt supply chains and warned “the time to act is now!”.

“Red tape and bureaucracy should not be allowed to trap our seafarers,” he concluded.

The webinar also heard from various government representatives who were helping seafarers.