A ship is a complicated thing. It has machinery and equipment for navigation and cargo handling, it generates its own power, carries its own fuel, feeds and accommodates its crew and most importantly it has a main engine to drive the ship from port to port and turn a profit. But a ship has to have a crew to make all these systems work.
A ship without a crew does none of these things, it becomes a floating liability. It doesn’t carry cargo and doesn’t earn an income. A ship that isn’t trading makes massive drains on the owner’s purse with things like layup costs, on-going maintenance, demurrage, insurance and survey fees-the costs keep mounting up.
There is estimated to be about 90, 000 ships trading worldwide (that’s roughly 2 million seafarers at sea at any one time) but at the moment they are more like prisons than ships. COVID 19 has trapped tens of thousands of seafarers on ships with very little hope of being relieved or getting home. A similar number are unable to work, to join the ships, thwarted by lockdown rules in countries around the world. Some crews have been trapped in this situation for over 12 months, unable to leave their ship (even in port) and unable to swing off on leave. Mental health issues like depression and despondency are on the rise. Suicides are prevalent but seldom reported. Many seafarers come from poor countries like the Philippines, Bangladesh and from eastern Europe.
One of the biggest marine training colleges in the world is in the Philippines. Each year, they turn out thousands of seafarers mainly from impoverished backgrounds, to pursue a career at sea. They’re young, keen and willing to work at sea to get ahead. They leave behind grinding poverty to get a better life at sea. Many turn out to be extremely good at their jobs. And they come very cheap. So cheap in fact, that the general public doesn't even recognize the part they play in getting their goods to them. They are the forgotten ones. But without them the ships can’t operate.
Australia is unique in that it is an island nation, totally dependent on shipping. In the tiny slice of world shipping, Australia hardly rates a mention. Our population is smaller than that of California or even cities like Shanghai. Yet because we are an island nation Australia sits near the top of the list of the world’s largest importers and exporters, all by sea. For example, our biggest export, iron ore, generates over $100 billion income a year (about one third of this is to China alone). The iron ore trade is crucial to Australia’s economic health. In fact, almost all of our trade is by sea. So, it’s not surprising that any disruption to the so-called “supply chain” will cause major disruptions to our way of life.
Already there’s been so much written about COVID 19 that it hardly needs more analysis by this author. Yet COVID 19 has impacted every single person’s life and unbeknown to most of us, our supply chain teeters on the brink of collapse. Recent incidents in Australia have highlighted this situation. Shipping, our link with the world trade, is in danger of being strangled.
It all started with the Ruby Princess fiasco in Sydney which spread across Australia. The press covered the plight of COVID infected passengers in detail. Nothing was said about the crew. Then there was the cruise ship Artania in Fremantle. This ship incurred long delays, again the crew were ignored (unless, of course, if they were infected themselves). The livestock carriers Al-Kuwait and Al-Messiah, in Fremantle have had delays and disruptions from COVID 19. There was the Key Integrity in Geraldton and in Port Hedland we've had the crews of the Patricia Oldendorff and the Vega Dream taken ashore and isolated, leaving their ships undermanned and vulnerable. Bear in mind the cyclone season in the Pilbara is almost upon us. Ships of this size pose an enormous threat if they are undermanned if a cyclone hits the anchorage.
There are two critical issues here. One is ships in port with COVID affected crews and the other is ships at anchor in a cyclone prone region. The ships in port have extended stays tying up berths and incurring massive deep cleaning costs. A costly exercise. The ships at anchor are another issue entirely. They must steam away, they can’t be towed, so with a skeleton crew they proceed to sea. Then what?
Putting aside our moral obligation to treat infected crews there is a real jurisdictional issue of who is responsible for these people. Little is heard from the ships’ managing agents even though they have an obligation to provide a safe workplace for their crews. It appears that the least of their worries are the crews on board.
At the same time the charterers are keeping their heads down. Their job is to charter the cheapest ship available for the job. The ships come with a crew, that’s the end of their legal obligation. There is no obligation to ensure the crews are COVID free. But who remembers the Ships of Shame Inquiries of the 1990s? Perhaps now is the time for the charterers to again come under scrutiny.
In these crisis times the crews aren’t really considered. They are treated as a commodity, the cheapest ships get the work, irrespective of the possiblity (or in this case, probability) of exposure to the crew to COVID 19.
The legal ramifications of who is ultimately responsible for the ships’ crews once they are in Australian waters pose another new and unresolved dilemma for “authorities”. I’m sure Pilbara Ports, responsible for the world’s largest bulk port have studied all the scenarios that they are faced with in Port Hedland, particularly during the cyclone season. But what is the answer? Do ships sail away short-handed or do they risk being driven ashore? A tough judgment call.
What happens to the remaining crew on board? Where do the ships go and how are they manned? All these problems ignore the human aspect of the crew’s welfare. What becomes of the crew members brought ashore for isolation? Are they sent home? Do they return to their ship after they are given the all-clear? When and how do they crew change? What becomes of the ship after leaving the anchorage? Does it still fall under the control of Australian "authorities" or are they back on the high seas? Are they in breach of their safe manning certificate? (yes). But this is an unforeseen emergency situation. How do flag, Class, insurers and the P&I Clubs view this situation? This is the situation that exists in Australia. Extrapolate this to a worldwide scenario.
Rightly or wrongly, the Commonwealth and State government authorities are acting with the best intentions for the safety of the seafarer’s health when they take them into isolation ashore. But our government’s primary focus is on the welfare of our immediate population. Who is looking at the long game? The seafarer’s welfare. Are they repatriated or are they prisoners of their ships? It depends on who makes the ultimate decisions for these crews.
They can’t turn to a union for support. The fledgling Philippines Seafarers Union, for example, hasn’t the wherewithal to deal with the complex problems of COVID 19 and the effects on their members. Probably no union in the world has experience with such a far reaching and complicated issue as COVID 19 and ships crews. There are the various Missions to Seafarers around the world but they can only deal with the consequences of this unique situation on a small scale in their individual ports. Surprisingly, ITLOS, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, doesn’t address crew welfare directly. Does the discretion of the ship’s master come into play? The local flag state authorities have limited jurisdictional clout. None look at the most integral part of the ship, its crew.
I sought a legal opinion from one of Australia’s leading maritime lawyers. He said essentially each case is different and it comes down to a judgment call of the Master. But the Master will be under tremendous pressure from the Charterers, the Owners, Class and flag and insurers not to mention Port Authorities and health experts. The decision, when its finally made, doesn’t consider the forgotten ones- the crew members.
by Kent Stewart FAIMS
Image: Alexey Seafarer, Adobe Stock
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