Stuck on board a ship since February, an apprentice engineer feels humiliated that she has no sanitary towels. She’s increasingly distressed that she cannot go home. Another seafarer doesn’t understand why he can’t be repatriated when his contract ended six months ago. A fresh crew member can’t board a ship because the person he’s replacing is blocked from leaving the ship.
These are the realities of the crew change crisis. Behind the statistics (there are now 400,000 seafarers now caught up in the tragedy), statements and promises from governments and international bodies, there are the day-to-day experiences of the seafarers who must live the crisis.
It’s at this real-world level where the efforts of crew managers, ship owners, and unions to get crew home and refreshed, are so critical.
Tommy Molloy, ITF Inspector based in Liverpool, has been working with anyone he can to help get seafarers home.
Molloy has been working with crew management company Marlow Navigation to assist seafarers on several of the vessels under its management to get home.
We take a look at some of Molloy and Marlow’s more recent cases below.
Early in September, Nautilus reported on a case of a Russian 2nd Engineer on board the MV Densa Leopard who was six months over contract but, despite the efforts of Marlow Navigation (NL), could not get off the vessel. Molloy took up the case with Malta, the flag state.
“Transport Malta asked for a written statement from the seafarer requesting his repatriation, but the flag state didn’t respond when this was provided,” Molloy explains. “When the vessel returned to Sri Lanka Marlow Navigation had arranged a replacement, a Sri Lankan, but two days were needed for the result of a Covid test for the on-signer as per local regulations. The charterer wouldn’t let the ship wait and ordered the vessel to make its way towards the Red Sea, where some relief crew were planned to join the ship.
“Before it departed, the ITF pushed for Sri Lankan Port State Control to inspect the vessel and determine if the ship was operating within the national and domestic rules regarding seafarer welfare and valid contracts, but they refused.”
The company requested that the 2nd Engineer be allowed to disembark in Sri Lanka, even without a reliever. Malta was not expected to have had any problem with this, as the seafarer had stopped working upon completion of his contract, and had become a passenger on the vessel – as is his right under the Maritime Labour Convention.
“We learned that the flag state had been contacted and had been asked if they would allow the 2nd Engineer to be put ashore in Sri Lanka without a reliever as he was following ITF advice and was no longer working in any case. A dispensation was requested in respect of safe manning to the next port only, where another 2nd Engineer was ready to join. It seems Transport Malta refused on the grounds that even if he wasn’t working, as long as his licence was on board with him safe manning requirements were met. I requested clarification from Transport Malta to establish if this was really their position but again, they did not respond.”
“Considering he was no longer working, safe manning requirements were not being met on the ship anyway,” said Molloy. “However, Malta argued that as long as the seafarer and his licence were on board, then safe manning requirements were being met. They thus forced him to stay on, so they could pretend his was contributing to the safety of the ship and tick their own box as a regulator.
“This is a truly outrageous and potentially deadly call from a flag state. They are both denying someone their right to go home and pretending one of their flagged vessels is safer than it really is. How can they argue someone is contributing to the safety of a ship if that person has already ruled themselves out for work, potentially because they are too tired or fatigued to carry on, and are resting as a passenger? I am confident that the ITF will be raising this decision again with Malta in coming weeks.”
With no help from Sri Lanka or Malta, Molloy turned his attention to Jordan.
Molloy told the MV Densa Leopard’s owners, Marinsa Denizcilik AS of Turkey, that Jordan’s borders had closed since the owner’s first made their plan to relieve crew there. As a result, Molloy said, the Jordanian authorities would probably detain the vessel as the owners would be unlikely to get replacement crew into the country.
As a result of Molloy’s warnings, the owners took the vessel off hire for two days to allow it to call to Egypt, so that the seafarer could finally be relieved. He went home on 29 September, almost seven months after his contract finished.
Marlow Navigation also asked Molloy for ITF assistance with the MV Densa Seal, which was at Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. The 18-strong crew had been on board for between 10 and 14 months and were refusing to sail the vessel any further. Although 17 on-signers were travelling from Mexico to join the vessel, they arrived just as the border with Guatemala was closed. That relief crew became stuck in a hotel near the two countries’ border crossing. In addition, the Mexican authorities refused to provide visas for the departing crew to transit through Mexico.
Juan Villalón Jones is ITF Inspector based in Chile and ITF Latin America/Caribbean contact network coordinator. He explained more.
“In order to get the on-signers on board – which you have to do to get the existing crew home – we and the company contacted all those we needed to. We got in touch with the Philippines and Ukraine embassies in Guatemala, a local agent, the representative of the P&I club and our ITF Inspector in Mexico, who in turn contacted the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The embassies and the Guatemalan authorities eventually cooperated and got presidential permission for the on-signers to cross the border ahead of its official re-opening. On 16 September the relief crew finally arrived in Puerto Quetzal and joined the vessel, allowing most of the off-signers to fly home via Mexico. Efforts were made to assist the few crew members whose US visas had expired and who were not allowed to transit through Mexico. Eventually, the Ukrainians flew home from El Salvador via Madrid on 10 October and the Filipinos arrived in Manila on 11 October,” said Villalón Jones.
Yasa Golden Dardanelles
Marlow Navigation was also trying to assist the crew of the MV Yasa Golden Dardanelles, who had been on board for more than 12 months. The vessel was in Houston, USA, and the crew relievers were already on board. However, the US visas of two Filipino crew members had expired, so the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) refused to allow them to disembark, even with an armed guard to accompany them to the airport.
Molloy contacted the ITF Inspector in Houston, Shwe Tun Aung: “We explained to the CBP that there were now 24 people on board and the ship only had safety equipment for 22 people,” Aung said. “We warned that as the vessel was scheduled to operate along the USA’s Gulf coast for the foreseeable future, the two crew members with expired contracts would be effectively kept prisoner by bureaucracy. They remained unmoved.”
“The company was left with no option but to send the two relievers home again, depriving them of the wages they had expected to earn to keep their families going, and to keep on board the two seafarers who had hoped to be finally going home. Just imagine how hard that was.”
The CBP’s disregard for seafarers’ circumstances is a major frustration in efforts to effect crew changes, said Molloy. He cites another example, unrelated to Marlow Navigation, where a young Panamanian cadet contacted Aung on 1 October begging for help to be repatriated. An apprentice engineer on a tanker performing lightering along the United States coast, she has been on board since 20 February, even though her lightering parole has expired. She felt the company was doing nothing to help her and wrote: “I am in very difficult situation with my period and I do not have any period pads to hold the bleeding. I feel very humiliated and I fear for my mental health.”
Aung contacted the company, who assured him of its repeated efforts to persuade the CBP to let the cadet disembark, including requesting the assistance of the Panama Maritime Authority. On 1 October, the company was advised by the CBP to “cancel [the] seaman’s flight arrangements considering that the Consulate of Panama is involved … and it will take about one to two weeks until we will receive a decision from Houston CBP.”
Aung’s pleas to the CBP have gone unanswered. The young seafarer remains on board.
Reflecting on what’s next for progressing more crew change, Tommy Molloy said the solutions still lie with governments.
“Covid-19 might be the excuse for a lack of crew change, but we’re eight months into this pandemic now and governments need to find ways to refresh this workforce.”
“Crew changes are being blocked by a combination of some national governments, their red tape, charterers who won’t allow the diversion of ships, some flag states, some ship owners, local bureaucrats, and a lack of flights. This all adds up to make it difficult to get seafarers home and refreshed by new crew.”
“The ITF has zero tolerance for companies who do not take the opportunity to do crew changes wherever they are possible, but the industry also has to work equally hard to make it easier to do changes in the first place. That’s why the ITF has been advocating so strongly for governments to bring in practical exemptions to border restrictions for seafarers, as well as pushing for more flights,” said Molloy.
Intransigence over visas, such as that experienced by the Yasa Golden Dardanelles crew, are far from uncommon in the Covid-19 era, Molloy explained.
“Limited flight availability means it is common for crew to have to wait a few days for their confirmed repatriation flight, but some immigration officers are unwilling to provide an exit visa covering the days until their departure. They are in effect rejecting the crew change.”
“The ITF has been urging countries to recognise seafarers as key workers to enable their safe transit from ship to airport and vice versa. Instead, many nations are turning their backs on the seafarers – the people who carry their cargoes. They are ignoring their international obligations.”
The role of charterers
Charterers are the agents who find and book ships on behalf of cargo owners, such as importers and exporters, and multinational companies. This means they have a big say over the route ships take, including if any diversions are made.
Many charterers are now inserting ‘no crew change clauses’ into their contracts with ship owners. This means that, while a charterer has a booking active on a ship, the ship’s owner and manning agent are prevented from deviating to a nearby port that allows crew change, no matter how long crew have been on board.
One management company told Molloy that some charterers are also refusing to include a template BIMCO clause on crew changes, and are actually rejecting vessels if a crew change is planned within the charter party duration. Such actions are devastating for backlog of tired and weary seafarers on the world’s international fleet and for hopes of getting on top of the crew change crisis.
“Things like this just make a bad situation worse for the crew,” said Molloy. “I haven’t had to deal with anyone killing themselves on board, yet, but of course it is happening.”
“If anything, it is surprising that it hasn’t happened more often. It’s pretty obvious that if you lock human beings up in a confined space for long enough, their mental health will suffer and they will lose hope. A lack of hope does dark things to people.”
“The worst part is that these seafarers have done nothing wrong. They have simply worked to keep the world supplied. Their reward for their endless sacrifice is for the world and its governments to treat them and their families with utter contempt,” said Molloy.