For about two years now, the pandemic has forced people to work from home, travel less, and be cautious about meeting with friends and family. These restrictions have made employee wellness a key concern for industries across sectors.
It would be no exaggeration to say that shipping has been among the worst-hit industries by the pandemic. Across the world, ports stopped seafarers from disembarking due to fears of spreading the virus. The crisis was so serious that thousands of seafarers were stranded on board for several months, and some, for as long as 17 months1.
The UN, International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Labor Organization (ILO), in collaboration with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and International Transport Worker’s Federation have issued several guidelines and recommendations in the last two years and urged governments and industry stakeholders to devise robust methods for safe crew change.
Some of the recommendations to support seafarers through various resolutions made by international organizations and agencies include2:
- Designate seafarers as essential workers and vaccinate them on priority
- Devise robust methods for safe crew change conforming to public health standards
- Identify obstacles to crew changes and designate seafarers as key workers for the purpose of facilitating safe and unhindered movement for embarking and disembarking of vessels
- The Nepture Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change also recommends the implementation of gold standard health protocols for seafarers while ensuring air connectivity for seafarers
- The Neptune Initiative also resulted in the setting up of the Nepture Declaration Crew Change Indicator to study and measure the number of seafarers who were stuck onboard beyond the period of their contracts
Despite the efforts of international bodies and stakeholders, serious challenges continue to dog the shipping industry and seafarers in particular. The crew-change crisis is among the biggest causes for concern. While easing restrictions may not be easy, a greater push is required from governments, owners, and charters to explore more effective and safe ways for crew change. When seafarers are stuck aboard beyond the stipulated 11-month contract, especially during a pandemic scare, the repercussions are several, serious, and long-term.
Not having access to timely medical care, fears of outbreaks and infections, restricted physical movement, and being separated from family and friends for very long periods will have a deep impact on seafarers’ physical and mental health.
Fatigue, isolation, and fears could decrease the attractiveness of the maritime industry, making the recruitment of seafarers a big challenge. This in turn will result in a shortage of hands, leading to extended onboard stays for officers and ratings, resulting in mental and physical problems. This is a complex and vicious cycle that the shipping industry simply cannot afford, especially when it is responsible for moving 90% of the global trade.
A continuous and rigorous focus on vaccination, timely disembarkation, repatriation, flexibility in route deviations (where required), and overall protection of the mental and physical health of seafarers is the only way to tackle this crisis.