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Shipping & Logistics

Ray of hope for 150,000 seafearers stranded in ships

Bulk carrier vessel
Bulk carrier vessel. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

More than 150,000 seafarers currently stranded aboard ships in the world are set to find a way out after the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued a roadmap to have them return to their homes in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

The recommendations of the IMO are contained in the 12-step plan to its 174 member States, which will act as a roadmap to free seafarers from their Covid-19 lockdown and allow appropriate exemptions for them to join or leave ships.

The organisation made the recommendations in a circular last week which was also copied to all IMO member States, United Nations and specialised agencies, intergovernmental organisations, and non-governmental organisations in consultative status with IMO.

In some of its recommendations, IMO wants governments and relevant national authorities to designate professional seafarers and marine personnel, regardless of nationality when in their jurisdiction, as "key workers" providing an essential service.

Other recommendations include to grant professional seafarers and marine personnel with any necessary and appropriate exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions in order to facilitate their joining or leaving ships.

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“Governments and national authorities to accept, inter alia, official seafarers' identity documents, discharge books, seafarer employment agreements and letters of appointment from the maritime employer, as evidence of being a professional seafarer, where necessary, for the purposes of crew changes,” IMO said.

Other recommendations are to permit professional seafarers and marine personnel to disembark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation.

Governments should implement appropriate approval and screening protocols for seafarers seeking to disembark ships for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation and also provide information to ships and crews on basic protective measures against Covid-19 based on WHO advice.

International Transport Workers’ Federation, (ITF) General Secretary Stephen Cotton, and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) Secretary General Guy Platten welcomed the move in their statement on Wednesday saying that failure to relieve crews’ risks the wellbeing of seafarers, maritime safety, and the critical supply chains the world relies on.

“Today seafarers’ unions, industry and the International Labour Organization(ILO) and Intentional Maritime Organization(IMO) are jointly calling on governments worldwide to put an end to hardships faced by the 150,000 seafarers currently stranded and pave a way for them to return home,” said the statement by both the two organizations.

The comprehensive ‘roadmap’ was developed by a supply chain coalition led by industry and unions in cooperation with UN agencies

The two unions said that the 12-step plan issued by IMO provides a route forward for governments on how to facilitate ship crew change during the pandemic

“To assist governments to put in place coordinated procedures to facilitate the safe movement of seafarers, IMO has issued a plan for its member states that will give them a roadmap to free seafarers from their lockdown and allow appropriate exemptions for them to join or leave ships, the statement

The roadmap was advanced by a broad coalition of seafarer unions, and international shipping industry associations, with input from airline industry representatives, international organisations, and the insurance sector, to provide a comprehensive blueprint of how governments can facilitate crew changeovers and resolve safety concerns throughout the entire process.

“In two weeks’, time, approximately 150,000 merchant seafarers will need to be changed over to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations, with tens of thousands currently trapped onboard ships across the globe due to the continuing imposition of travel restrictions. Failure to do so risks the wellbeing of seafarers, maritime safety, as well as the supply chains that the world relies on,” the two unions said in the joint statement.

During the International Workers’ Day, last Friday ships across the world sounded their horns as part of the #HeroesAtSeaShoutout initiative, aimed at reminding governments of the plight and sacrifice of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers who are keeping the world supplied during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have seen from the heroes at sea shoutout that seafarers are doing their bit to keep trade flowing. We stand ready to support our seafarers and we are working with political leaders so that they can steer a steady course and allow safe crew changes to take place. The problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex. So, we have stepped up and done the homework and developed the protocols. We are now working with governments to implement this roadmap,” said Mr Platten.

“Seafarers continue to work really hard, day-in, day-out and far away from loved ones, but if we are not able to free our seafarers from their COVID-19 lockdown we could start to see disruption to trade and more importantly we increase the risk of accident and occurrences of mental health issues. Putting this off is no longer an option,” he added.

Protocols, he said clearly set out the responsibility of governments, shipowners, transport providers and seafarers.

“The protocols also provide a framework to develop robust procedures that can be adopted worldwide to ensure that trade can keep flowing and seafarers can be relieved.

“Today seafarers’ unions, industry and the ILO and IMO are jointly calling on governments worldwide to put an end to hardships faced by the 150,000 seafarers currently stranded and pave a way for them to return home. It is about governments recognising the critical role that seafarers play in global supply chains, recognising them as key workers, and providing immediate and consistent exceptions from COVID-19 restrictions to allow crew changeovers,” said Mr Cotton.

Mr Cotton said international seafarers are bearing the burden first-hand as governments turn a blind eye to the ‘forgotten sector’.

“The ITF, ICS and IMO have a clear message that the governments cannot continue with a mentality of out of sight, out of mind, and we strongly urge governments to use this roadmap to act now before we suffer more serious consequences,” he said.

According to the sector players, this issue is critical and is increasingly taking on a humanitarian dimension for those crews which have already spent many months at sea, and which urgently need to be repatriated to their home countries and to be replaced.

The 12-step solution provides governments with the global framework to facilitate changeovers of ships’ crews, including the lack of available flights.

“In view of the importance of international maritime transport to the resilience of the global economy at this critical time, the recommendations have been produced in record time to enable governments to take the urgent action needed to address this issue, said the joint statement.

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