The closure of international borders, flight caps and quarantine procedures owing to Covid-19 pose a grave threat to global shipping supply chains and the welfare of seafarers, the head of Australia’s maritime safety authority has warned.
Mick Finley, chief executive of Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa), said there was an increasing risk that the global shipping industry could “grind to a halt” or serious accidents occur because of the extreme pressure on crew, some of whom have not set foot on land for 17 months.
“If we don’t deal with this problem then eventually they [seafarers] could down tools. So we have to keep on top of it and we have to keep working on it,” he told the Financial Times.
The international shipping industry is responsible for about 90 per cent of the carriage of global trade.
Since the end of June, Amsa has detained seven ships visiting Australian ports because of alleged breaches of maritime regulations and last week banned a bulk carrier, Unison Jasper, for six months. In some instances ships have been unable to leave port owing to the difficulty of replacing crew, who have asked authorities to help them to be allowed off vessels.
Restrictions at ports around the world on ships docking to change crew — an essential process within the day-to-day running of the industry — have meant that huge numbers of seafarers have been unable to return home this year. The International Chamber of Shipping has recently estimated that 250,000 seafarers are stuck at sea, beyond their contracts.
Under the Maritime Labour Convention, a binding international regulation, the maximum period seafarers should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months.
Mr Finley said Covid-19 travel restrictions on a global level were making it difficult for seafarers to get to their home nations when they completed their contracts or for replacement crew to get on to ships to meet minimum crew requirements. Canberra’s decision to close state borders had added an extra layer of complexity to the issue, he said.
Some shipping companies are doing their best to repatriate foreign sailors — many of whom are from India or the Philippines — and replace crew while others are flouting regulations, said Mr Finley, who has ordered a crackdown on rogue operators.
Amsa has undertaken 600 port inspections since June 26 and received 104 complaints from one or more crew members about alleged violations of maritime regulations. More than three-quarters of those complaints involved crew spending longer than 11 months onboard without leave.
“We’ve seen instances where some of these poor guys have been on the ship for 17 months. And that’s not good for anybody in that environment. It’s constant fatigue — systemic fatigue builds up. Everyone in the industry is concerned that this will manifest into incidents,” said Mr Finley.
He added that some people in the industry were already speculating that fatigue could have played a role in the grounding of the MV Wakashio in Mauritius, which led to a catastrophic oil spill in July. Mental health and suicide were big concerns for fatigued seafarers, said Mr Finley.
Last month, Amsa banned two Liberian flagged tankers, Agia Sofia and TW Hamburg, for alleged systematic underpayment of seafarers. Last week, it banned the Union Jasper — a ship transporting alumina to a smelter jointly owned by Rio Tinto, CSR and Hydro Aluminium — for alleged breaches of regulations regarding wages, food and employment agreements.
Rio Tinto and CSR did not respond to a request for comment about the Union Jasper. Unison Marine Corporation did not reply to a request for comment.
Dean Summers of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, said conditions for seafarers stuck on board vessels for up to 18 months was edging towards “modern day slavery”. Ship owners, charterers and governments needed to do more to protect crew and ensure safety and the maintenance of vital supply chains, he said.