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Feeling all at sea: Seafarers languish as pandemic throws crew change out of gear

Dhyan Ramakrishnan, 28, a third officer, was about to join a bulk carrier owned by Pacific Carriers Limited and operating around Australia in March after a seven-month lay-up. His new employer, Aurus Ship Management Pvt Ltd, had lined him up to join the ship and asked him to get the mandatory medical tests done.

On March 18, Dhyan rode his bike from his home in Payyoli, a municipal town in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, famous as the hometown of athletic great PT Usha, to Kochi, some 240 km away (one way) to undergo the medical test, and returned the same day.

Kerala was firmly in the grip of the pandemic and Dhyan didn’t want to take chances.

“Public transport was too risky when I was about to join a ship,” he told BusinessLine.

“The next day, Aurus called and said I could not go because by that time the government had come out with a list of countries one cannot sign on and Australia was in the list. The ship allotted to me was sailing around Australia. In the end, they just cancelled it. My bad luck,” he sighs.

Chief Engineer Pankaj Seth, hailing from Kanpur, is also stranded on-board an oil tanker at Port of Alexandria in Egypt. He was due to sign off on February 6 after a three-month contract. “It’s my seventh month onboard and no sign of flights to India,” he says.

Pankaj’s mother is suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease stage IV; she is on oxygen 24/7; his 81-year-old father underwent surgery for cancer last year.

“My wife, who is hypertensive with hyperthyroid, is taking care of them along with the kids,” he told BusinessLine.

The uncertainty surrounding Covidhas made the situation worse.

“Authorities are not allowing seafarers to step on-shore when vessel is in port. I have not stepped on land for the last six months. We are a 19-person complement on board and trying to boost each other’s morale. Our company is also stuck as no flights are operating to India. For some basic problems such as severe toothache, we are scared to see doctor on shore owing to Covid fears,” he said. “When shore persons come on-board, we are scared; what if somebody onboard gets infected, then the entire ship will be in jeopardy.”

A crew on board can sign off only after a reliever comes when the ship is in a port. In order to disembark, he should also know when the flights to India re-start. “Otherwise, with reliever on board, it is dangerous to stay in hotels till flights resume,” he said.

“My company has lined up relievers from Romania, Russia, Ukraine and India. But, we are waiting for flights to operate to India, so that the logistics can be finalised,” he said.

Vivek Kumar, 30, from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, along with four other Indians, is stuck on board the general cargo ship M V Eurika at Mykonos Island New Port in Greece after discharging cargo on April 5.

Kumar, employed as a general-purpose rating, joined the ship on July 31, 2019, and as per the contract, he could sign off in 7-9 months. “We have been requesting the company from February 25 to let us go, but they are not listening,” he said.

Kumar and his fellow Indians have not been paid salary for February, March and April. “We have run out of patience, moreover our health is not good,” he said.

Dhyan, Seth and Kumar are among thousands of Indian seafarers waiting to join a ship, or leaving one, after the lockdown restrictions grounded international flights.

A different story
While the focus was riveted on bringing back seafarers stranded overseas since the pandemic struck, those waiting in India to join a ship on their next contract have a different story to tell.

“People are talking about seafarers stranded offshore in overseas locations. Am talking about the people stranded on shore, waiting to join a ship. Seafarers who are stranded on board, at least they are getting their wages. What about us? For us, there is no income on shore. We have to work on a ship to earn our income. For eight months, I have been sitting at home without any income,” Dhyan says.

In shipping, companies don’t make payment after a crew signs off at the end of the contract period. “You have to work, if you are working six months, you get six months’ pay. I worked for eight months on a ship with my previous employer and signed off on August 30, 2019. I have already spent eight months at home,” he said.

For a ship management and crewing company, it is impossible to have an all-Indian crew on their ships calling at Indian ports, to facilitate crew change.

Most of the ships operate with crew of different nationalities and ships having all Indian crew are far and few.

“When my company’s ship visits the Indian coast, they cannot change the crew because the nationality I’m about to change could be Chinese, the Philippines or Ukraine. So, the third officer might be from a different nationality, may be from China or the Philippines. So, when an Indian is replacing him, I can sign on, no problem. But, the guy I’m relieving, where will he go? There is no flight, that’s the big issue. Once a guy signs off, he has to go home by air. So, when I join, the guy whom I have relieved will be stranded here. First of all, the government won’t give him permission because he is from a different nationality, so he cannot sign off,” Dhyan revealed.

April was the worst month for Indian seafarers in many years. The crew change crisis that gripped the global shipping industry due to the lockdown has snatched some 50,000 jobs for Indians on board ships.

To add to the woes, no new jobs were generated, according to the International Maritime Federation (IMF), an association of Indian shipping entrepreneurs, crew managers and maritime training institutions.

Till the coronavirus spread, seafarers were “voiceless” and considered “too minuscule a community for politicians to exploit as vote bank”, though India is a key supplier of crew to global shipping.

After the lockdown restrictions came into force, seafarers and their families hounded the government to permit crew change for Indian seafarers at Indian ports.

After some initial hiccups, sign-on and sign-off of seafarers at Indian ports have started and is proceeding smoothly, barring a few stray incidents of non-cooperation by authorities relating to interpretation of quarantine rules specified by the government in the standard operating procedure (SOP) for such crew change.

Some 1,500 crew changes (joining and disembarking) have happened from April 24 at various Indian ports.

The focus has since shifted to crew change of Indian seafarers at foreign ports. About 40,000 seafarers are waiting to sign off from ships while some 15,000 are waiting in India to join ships abroad. Most of those waiting to sign off have completed their contracts but have been asked to stay back in the absence of an acceptable plan to change crew.

In two weeks, some 150,000 seafarers trapped on-board ships across the globe due to travel restriction will need to be changed over to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations. according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the world’s top shipping association.

Double whammy
“It is absolutely imperative for India to facilitate crew change in foreign ports now,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO and Founder of ship manager Synergy Group.

“The double whammy of mental health and safety of seafarers overdue for relief on board and job losses for those onshore will be catastrophic,” he said.

Due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, large numbers of seafarers are having to extend their service on board ships after many months at sea, unable to be replaced after long tours of duty or be repatriated via aircraft to their home countries, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) said.

“Shipping is vital to the maintenance of global supply chains, but the current situation is unsustainable for the safety and well-being of ship crew and the safe operation of maritime trade. Each month, about 1,50,000 seafarers need to be changed over to and from the ships which they operate to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations for ensuring safety, crew health and welfare, and the prevention of fatigue, it said.

On May 5, the IMO circulated a framework of protocols to 174 member states, for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s all about execution now,” Synergy Group’s Unni said, while urging member state governments to act on the IMO protocols. “The pandemic has magnified the world’s overbearing focus on the commercial aspects of shipping. The future will hopefully see concrete action and real support to seafarers well-being”, he added.
Source: The Hindu Business Line

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