300,000 seafarers still trapped on ships by crew change crisis

Written by Nick Blenkey
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COVID-19 restrictions on crew change have caused a humanitarian crisis at sea. [Image: IMO]

A global summit hosted by the U.K. Government on July 9, 2020, on the impact of COVID-19 on crew changes may have gotten some headlines, but so far doesn’t seem to have done much to resolve the issue,

Today, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) estimates that there are now approximately 300,000 seafarers trapped working aboard ships due to the crew change crisis, with an equal number of unemployed seafarers waiting to join their ships who are ashore. That makes 600,000 seafarers affected by this crisis.

Today marks one month since the ITF told the world’s governments that t the federation and its affiliates would be assisting the world’s seafarers in enforcing their right to stop working, get off and be repatriated to their homes and families, following completion of their contracts (see earlier story).

ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton says that in the month since July 15 there has been some positive movement, but too little progress has been made by governments to bring in the practical exemptions and protocols needed to support functioning crew changes across the world.

“We put a line in the sand last month to make it clear that the ITF and our affiliates are prepared to support seafarers in exercising their right to stop working, get off, and return home to their families, once their contract has finished and it is safe to do so. In the last month, we have provided advice and assisted thousands of seafarers on how they can enforce this fundamental right,” said Cotton.

Chair of the ITF Seafarers Section, Dave Heindel, said the ITF and its social partners have been doing everything possible to raise the alarm and push for the practical changes that would enable crew changes.

“We commend the governments which have brought in options for seafarers to disembark and be relieved by fresh crew, such as visas on arrival and visa waivers, but the sad fact is that globally governments aren’t doing near what is needed and some governments have even gone backwards,” said Dave Heindel.

““We have also made it clear that we and our affiliates would be following up on the 13 governments who made pledges this month at the International Maritime Virtual Summit on Crew Changes hosted by the United Kingdom,” Heindel added.” We plan to hold them to account and encourage others to join these progressive governments. This crisis requires all governments to develop a unified solution that takes serious the needs of the world’s seafarers. Governmental lip service is no longer an acceptable solution.”,”


BIMCO, the world’s largest direct-membership organization for shipowners, notes that the U.K.-hosted summit had been attended by just fifteen countries.

“The absence of many key countries from the international community at the summit highlights the apparent indifference of some governments towards the crew change crisis and their lack of understanding of the critical role seafarers play in keeping international trade moving,” said David Loosley, who took over the position of BIMCO Secretary General, who from Angus Frew earlier this month.

BIMCO says the shipping industry has been seeking ways to overcome the obstacles that have made crew changes so difficult, including chartered flights and rerouting ships.

“People have worked tirelessly in crewing offices around the world to find their way through bureaucratic mazes, and around canceled flights, to get crews home and onto the ships,” says BIMCO.

At a practical level, BIMCO has appealed to shipowners and those who hire the services of their ships to work together to carry out crew changes. If shipowners are unable to make crew changes at the ports where the ship visits, then they should not be penalised if they must carry out the crew change elsewhere. The ability of a ship to continue operating safely depends on regular crew changes to avoid fatigue. In the exceptional circumstances created by the pandemic agreement is needed that crew changes are a common benefit and that those hiring the ships should be willing to contribute to the process.

BIMCO also continues to urge its members to contact their national governments to demand action in response to the crew change crisis.

“Now is not the time for inward looking nationalism – all governments need to step up to the mark and work together to provide a tangible international solution to a pressing international problem; robust, decisive and immediate action is needed to bring our seafarers home safely,” Loosley says.

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