Fri | Jan 15, 2021

Global supply chains may collapse if crew-change crisis continues

Published:Tuesday | June 30, 2020 | 12:06 AM
Kitack Lim
Kitack Lim

International Chamber of Shipping Chairman Esben Poulsson expressed gratitude about the cooperation between industry and social partners on the issue of crew changes. However, “government bureaucracy and a lack of political leadership has meant that 400,000 seafarers remain stranded, leaving the supply chains we rely upon at critical risk of collapsing”, he said.

During Poulsson’s keynote remarks at the opening of the Informa Markets Digital Maritime Week, he warned that “with some 400,000 seafarers still in need of crew change, the global supply chains and trade are under threat from the logjam caused by the inability to conduct crew exchanges in most countries”.

“Every month, 200,000 seafarers alternate, ensuring safe and sustainable working standards, but currently, seafarers are trapped on board ships isolated from COVID-19 and also isolated from family and friends,” he added.

Poulsson noted how the industry sector had come together to seek action from governments, including the development of a 12-step plan for crew changes circulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). However, he added that action by governments to adopt the 12-step protocols remains lacking in most cases, noting the United Kingdom, Germany, Hong Kong, and Singapore as exceptions.

“Shipowners and port operators have been doing all they can to support the seafarers, but still, seafarers remain trapped. This cannot go on. We cannot take these heroes of global trade for granted anymore. The fact that we are over three months down the line and we have 400,000 seafarers in need of crew change is completely unsustainable,” said Poulsson.

Reiterating Poulsson’s concerns, Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the IMO, has repeated his plea for governments around the world to allow safe seafarer crew changes as a matter of urgency. In his keynote speech at the opening of the virtual 10th annual Capital Link Operational Excellence in Shipping Forum, held earlier this month, Lim pointed out that industry bodies had worked together to draw up a series of 12 protocols to ensure safe crew changes. “These had been endorsed by the IMO itself and were backed by United Nations secretary general, António Guterres himself,” Lim said.

The 12-step protocol is a 55-page road map that has been advanced by a broad coalition of seafarer unions and international shipping-industry associations, with input from airline industry representatives, international organisations, and the insurance sector to provide a comprehensive blueprint of how governments can facilitate crew changeovers and resolve safety concerns throughout the entire process.


The wide-ranging protocols provide a framework to develop procedures that can be adopted worldwide to ensure that trade can keep flowing and seafarers can be relieved, with recommendations to maritime administrations and other relevant national authorities such as health, Customs, immigration, border control, seaport and civil aviation authorities. They address the roles of shipping companies, agents, and representatives, including crew agencies and seafarers, and extend to seaports, airports, and airlines involved in travel operations for ship-crew changes.

The 12-step plan titled ‘Recommended Framework of Protocols for Ensuring Safe Ship-Crew Changes and Travel during the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic’ was issued in an IMO circular inviting the organisation’s member states and international organisations to use the protocols and to disseminate them among relevant national authorities.

Lim called it “imperative” that governments now implement these protocols and implored them to do more to allow crew changes. “This cannot wait,” he said. “This is now a real safety issue, endangering the safe operation of ships.”

Supporting Lim’s plea, Poulsson said, “Seafarers have gone the extra mile, extending their tours of duty, and have kept working to keep us all supplied.”

As a global solution to the crew-change crisis remains elusive, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and its affiliated seafarer unions say that they assist their members to stop working and leave their vessels. Stephen Cotton, ITF general secretary, stated: “If a seafarer wants off a ship, then the ITF, our affiliated unions, and the ITF inspectorate will do everything we can to assist them. We fully expect port state authorities in all countries where ships dock to honour their obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention to get these seafarers safely home. That is their legal obligation,” he said.