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More than 2 lakh ship crew are stuck at sea and are facing a ‘humanitarian crisis’

Seafarers stuck on merchant ships are at an increasing risk of mental and physical fatigue as port restrictions and cancelled flights disrupt crew changes.

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Manila/Singapore: Even as countries try returning to some semblance of pre-pandemic life, ongoing restrictions are wearing thin a crucial human link in the global supply chain.

More than 200,000 seafarers stuck on merchant ships carrying everything from medical supplies to grain and oil are at increasing risk of mental and physical fatigue as port restrictions and canceled flights snarl the ability of vessels to change crews, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.

Though invisible to most consumers, seafarers have kept international trade afloat through the pandemic and what’s likely the worst recession in almost a century. While industry bodies like the ICS warn the sector faces a “humanitarian crisis” that jeopardizes the flow of goods and is pushing for governments to ease restrictions, some shippers and crew are taking matters into their own hands.

In some cases, ships are diverting to ports they wouldn’t otherwise visit to swap workers, a practice typically reserved for medical emergencies. Meanwhile, firms are seeking to ease the burden on crews. A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, which controls about a fifth of the global fleet used to transport goods by sea, has extended seafarer contracts and offers benefits like increased internet connectivity and mental support programs.

“Crew changes are by far one of the biggest challenges to shipping that have emerged from this virus outbreak,” said Ralph Leszczynski, head of research at shipbroker Banchero Costa & Co. “The preferred solution so far has been to extend the existing contracts of the crews” as deviating a ship could add hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, he said.

Seven bulk carriers diverted this month to change crews in the Philippines, home to one in four of the world’s seafarers, while another is expected to arrive in June, according to local manning agencies A. Magsaysay Inc. and Baliwag Navigation Inc.

Oil tanker China Dawn, which was en route to Singapore from Brazil, diverted to the Indian port of Cochin this month to allow workers to disembark because of the mental strain from the prolonged period at sea, according to reports from newspaper South China Morning Post and Splash, which covers the shipping industry.

“Stringent restrictions imposed by many countries, including denial of shore leave and access to essential medical assistance, is contributing to fatigue and exhaustion,” ICS said in a May 21 letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “We are concerned about suicide and self-harm amongst this vulnerable population of workers.”

Few Options

Normally, about 100,000 seafarers change ships every month during scheduled port stops, when vessels discharge and pick up freight. The longest seafarers should be on board a ship is 11 months, according to the Maritime Labor Convention.

But now only a handful of ports allow full or limited crew transfers, according to a list by Inchcape Shipping Services. And scheduling flights for seafarers when many airlines have grounded their fleets complicates the task further.

“There is a huge pent-up demand for crew changes across the industry,” said William Fairclough, managing director of Wah Kwong Maritime Transportation Holdings Ltd., an independent shipowner in Hong Kong with 19 vessels. The company has managed to swap crews five or six times over the last few weeks when ships made planned stops in China, he said.

For a bulk carrier running commodities between Australia and Japan, a diversion to Manila would add about three days of travel time and approximately $30,000 to $48,000 at current shipping rates, according to a person who handles crew matters at an Asian bulk-carrier firm, and who asked not to be identified as company policy bars speaking to the media. That’s comparable to flying a crew of 10-15 from the Philippines to Japan and quarantining them for two weeks, which costs roughly $3,000 per person, he said.

The U.K. has enabled crew changes throughout the Covid-19 crisis and Germany lifted quarantine measures for seafarers in early April, according to the ICS, which recommends crews are tested for the virus before departing their country of origin. Rotterdam is another option for crew changes, but a quarantine requirement has increased costs, according to Doris Magsaysay-Ho, president of Manila-based A. Magsaysay Inc.

Dutch airline KLM said it would begin operating four flights a week between Amsterdam and Manila as of May 25 to help facilitate marine crew changes. Some Filipino seafarers have been allowed to enter Japan, according to Dario Alampay, vice-president for operations of Baliwag Navigation, which has sent two marine crews through Tokyo.

“In the absence of governments providing travel exceptions for seafarers, or facilitating viable travel routes to repatriate crews, it’s likely we will continue to see some diversion occur,” ICS Chairman Esben Poulsson said in an email. – Bloomberg

Also read: Nightmare at sea ends in death for some cruise-ship workers


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  1. China has reportedly blocked coal vessels on high seas carrying huge coal stocks with about 400 sailors – a worrisome news for Australia on 25 December , 2020.
    According to news reports on 25 December , 2020 , two million tonnes of coal with 400 sailors are stuck on ships off China’s northeast coast. This consignment of coal stocks from Australia is said to have been refused by China. A humanitarian crisis looks to be brewing in. It may be known that coal is the third largest export from Australia. It is believed by political analysts that the row seems to be taking shape in the face of not so diplomatic warm relationship in recent past between Australia and China. In this context , it may be apt to refer readers to this Vedic astrology writer’s one of predictive alerts in article – “ Reading planetary impacts for Australia in coming year 2021” – published at on 21 October , 2020. The text related to the predictive alert for more care and appropriate strategy reads as follows in the article:-
    “ ( 3 ). The two months from January to February in 2021 may find Australia trying hard to look into infirmities in economic system so as to plug such things as may be found giving or having potential to give rise to economic problem. Similarly , some ailments which have tendency to grow through air or closer human contact are likely to be in focus for remedy. In this connection , support of countries in partnership may be explored and taken. Economic slowdown looks to be there. Aviation , tourism , marine -industry , fishery may be found causing worrisome concern , danger of loss may be feared there. There may be worrisome concerns on account of sea-wealth and energy resources with some countries”.
    The aforesaid details would suggest that the predictive alert for more care and appropriate strategy made by this writer on 21 October , 2020 in relation to Australia has been indicative and meaningful.
    India is also in news-focus for , more or less , a similar story. About 41 Indian sailors aboard two ships are not reportedly being allowed by the Chinese authorities to offload coal at Chinese ports. The coal was exported from India to China , awaiting offloading even in December 2020. In this context , it may be apt to refer readers to this Vedic astrology writer’s another predictive article as follows :-
    “ Major worrisome potential of concerns during 10 January to 13 February in soon coming year 2021 for vulnerable world including India as well , calling for more care and appropriate strategy”.
    Through said predictive article published at on 26 November , 2020 , this writer has alerted that such regions of world as are known for minerals and metals could have major war-like issues after mid-December , 2020 and in particular between about 10 January to 13 February in coming year 2021. It has also been added therein that predictive alert can have another connotation as well. Minerals and metals industry in vulnerable countries across the world could likely face major worrisome concerns during the period of time.
    ( 1 ). Link to reach the article published on 21 October , 2020 , referred to here :-
    ( 2 ). Link to reach the article published on 26 November , 2020 , referred to here :-

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