A MARINER serving on board merchant vessel had his scheduled signoff in March. All on a sudden, the employing shipping company imposed restrictions on his leaving the vessel and returning home because of the COVID19 pandemic. His expecting wife’s estimated date of delivery was in the first week of May. Because of the general holiday, his wife was not in a position to even consult a doctor. The state of his being trapped on the vessel put his mental health in jeopardy. Another seafarer has was to join the vessel since the middle of March. Having being unemployed for long eight months, he is now facing a financial crisis.
These are the stories of individual seafarers who are devoted to the safe passage of 80 per cent of the global trade. By middle of May, 1.5 lakh seafarers will be in need of crew change, as a joint estimation of the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Maritime Employers’ Council suggests. Bangladeshi seafarers cannot escape this growing crisis.
Seafarer repartition is a common phenomenon in the shipping industry. After six to nine months of contract completion, the employer arranges seafarer disembarkation and replacement to comply with the Maritime Labour Convention. Around 10,000 seafarers’ rotation takes place every month to keep 50,000 to 60,000 vessels moving. However, travel restrictions because of the outbreak of COVID-19 compelled employers to impose contract extension for a month. That extended time is almost up in most cases. This extended stay increased the vulnerability to mental illnesses as seafarers are locked on ships like prisoners in jail. Although they are the key personnel in the global supply chain, restrictions on repartition endangers the flow of food, medicine, medical equipment, energy and other commodities, as stated by the International Maritime Organisation’s secretary general Kitack Lim. In this respect, the maritime organisation issued a circular urging governments to exempt bans on travels of seafarers allowing the territorial transit for smooth crew changeover process.
In response to the IMO request, the two largest suppliers of seafarers, the Philippines and India made special arrangements for seafarer repartition. More than 20,000 Filipino seafarers returned home by chartered flight. The Philippine government converted two vessels into ‘quarantine vessels’ accommodating 1,500 persons. Incoming Filipino seafarers underwent airport medical protocol with mandatory 14 days of quarantine. Besides, the neighbouring India allowed crew change only for their citizens at home ports following the standard operating procedure, which includes the declaration of past 28 days’ travel history, medical examination and travel pass issued for a fixed route to a residence with time validity specified.
Being a seafaring nation, Bangladesh earned more than Tk 1,800 crore in foreign remittances in a single year. According to the Government Shipping Office, more than 10,000 registered seafarers serve in merchant vessels. Many of the Bangladeshi seafarers sail abroad on various types of cargo vessels worldwide on extended contracts. However, the GSO permits seafarer’s sign-on/sign-off under special circumstances throughout the lockdown period. Although every crisis comes with uncertainty, it can also bring opportunity. Negligence during the COVID-19 crisis may lead to taking a hit in Bangladeshi seafarers’ participation in the global market as all other competing nations offered support for their seafarers.
In the face of such challenges, permitting crew change for Bangladeshi citizens at home port can go a long way to boost up employment. Others nationalities sign off in Bangladeshi port can open up the placement opportunity for Bangladeshi seafarers. Formulating crew change standard operating procedure is also the need of the hour to widen employment scope. It may consist of medical examinations by approved authorities, quarantine facilities and transit pass with validity. Furthermore, supporting Bangladeshi mariners waiting for landing and joining on board, a couple of flight may be arranged at regular intervals on several routes.
In air route selection, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates can be a convenient option as it facilitates many vessels along with corresponding flights. Such approaches will not only remove the seafarer’s uncertainty but also help to strengthen the economy as well as the global supply chain.
Md Mostafa Aziz Shaheen, a former mariner, is a lecturer in port and shipping management in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Maritime University.
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