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COVID-19 pandemic and the Crew Change Crisis.



What are crew change allowed countries and is there a certain crew change guide to follow during this tough time? How the pandemic has changed the entire industry and what has the industry done in return to fight back? You will get your answers in this article.

The world is busy getting adapted to the new norms. But, the shipping industry continues to face challenges and risks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Crew changes have been a major issue for ship owners. Despite worldwide attempts to ameliorate the situation, numerous barriers remain, and crew changes sans restrictions are unlikely to reappear soon. Reports claim that each crew change costs about $2,000 extra than the usual amount.

At the same time, The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has continuously attempted to intervene with new protocols. National health and immigration officials began implementing limitations and many foreign flights were halted between March and August 2020. When it comes to the crew changes in the maritime sector, it is reported that just about 25% of regular crew changes were possible during that time.

Due to various travel restrictions, many crew members are working overtime. Shipowners are forced to detract from the planned voyage to the land crew. Meanwhile, improved control measures have been implemented in certain jurisdictions, requiring vessels that have changed crew at an overseas port within 14 days to undergo mandatory quarantine before moving ahead to load or release. These aspects were key reasons behind charter party disputes. In case you are unaware of what a charter party is, it is a contract in which the owner of a ship leases it to others to deliver goods. The estimates say that the travel restrictions have affected up to 400,000 seafarers.

Seaworthiness and on-board duty for a longer period

Overtime working has a strong influence on both the physical and emotional health of the crew. This has increased the likelihood of stress and inability to complete the crew's responsibilities among the staff. There have been concerns raised about whether the lengthy onboard stay would result in a seaworthiness risk. In its broadest meaning, seaworthiness refers to the vessel's ability to face the common perils of the trip.

Over 150,000 seafarers were expected to require an urgent return in August 2020, with up to 250,000 workings on extended crew contracts who were overdue to return home, in addition to those who needed to join their ships to work and keep the global fleet going. Until governments take the required steps to allow crew changes, the number of staff stuck at sea is certain to rise further.

As is well known, maritime law has evolved to force vessels to comply with regulatory standards. The stuck crew may cause a ship to be unseaworthy due to a violation of the Maritime Labor Convention 2006 (MLC). The law states that the maximum period of service periods on board is 12 months. Also, it says that seafarers have the right to return once this time has elapsed. During the pandemic, flag states have shown some flexibility by allowing crew contracts to be stretched beyond 12 months.

The responsibility to supply a seaworthy ship is mandatory in common law, although it is sometimes amended by the adoption of the Hague-Visby Rules (the Rules) via a paramount clause. As a result, owners are simply required to use due diligence in confirming that the vessel is seaworthy at the start of the journey. It is never a question of whether a shipowner has done their due diligence.

The outbreak of COVID-19, difficulty in replacing staff, and new Flag State rules are no longer novel to ship owners. Here is an example.  If owners send a crew member on a 3-month cruise knowing that he has previously spent 11 months at sea, it simply means they have failed to conduct due diligence.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) announced on June 15, 2020, that they were unable to agree to a further blanket extension of tours of duty under agreements it has with the International Maritime Employers' Council (IMEC). This concerns many seafarers from the main labour supply countries, such as the Philippines, India, and Eastern Europe. Despite ongoing excellent cooperation between ICS and ITF, it is obvious that tolerance among seafarers' unions is wearing out in response to rising concern among ship's workers who are craving eagerly waiting to return to their homes. ICS established in 1921 stands for, The International Chamber of Shipping. It is a trade association that is representing ship owners and the operators through national ship-owner associations. The mission of ICS is nothing but to promote the interests of its members in all aspects of ship operation and shipping policy.

Deviation for crew changes

Most conventional time charter party forms allow owners to divert the vessel to save lives. In the current COVID-19 circumstances, it may be impossible to exercise this privilege. However, under Article IV Rule 4 of the Rules, a reasonable departure is expressly authorized and accessible to owners if the Rules are incorporated.

A crew change deviation is justified or not will also be determined, depending on whether or not the owners have used due diligence during the arrangements. Before a journey, the court may investigate time, knowledge, and available alternatives for crew changing. An intentional deviation for crew changes for convenience would most likely be unacceptable.

Owners risk breaking their contractual responsibility to execute charterers' requests and sail the vessel with utmost or appropriate haste unless they can demonstrate reasonableness. Owners are thus advised to make crew changes before the start of the contractual trip or to get charterers' approval before the completion of any assignment.

Protocol Framework of the IMO

ICS has followed a plan with many aspects while leading a shipping sector Crew Change Task Force, which was created early in April 2020. The first was the creation by ICS, with input from the entire industry, of a detailed crew change guide "Framework of Protocols" for securely performing crew changes. It was distributed to countries via the IMO at the start of May.

These Protocols outline the steps that shipping corporations should take during the crew change procedure, as well as the paperwork required to support this. The Protocols cover the entire procedure, from the time sailors leave their homes to the time they arrive at airports and aboard a ship in another nation.

It should be recognized that the crew change guide with '12 steps,' as defined in what has become known as the IMO Protocols, is only a structure to which governments might alter following local situations. As a result, ICS members have been working closely with the appropriate authorities to ensure that these Protocols are implemented.

While utilizing these IMO Protocols has expanded throughout the world, many national authorities are still insisting on quarantine procedures for seafarers or other unrealistic criteria, such as ships remaining at the anchor until those seafarers being repatriated have departed on their flights, which, due to the scarcity of flights accessible, has been hampered.

Issues regarding the Visas

The situation in Europe improved slightly in the summer of 2020 when a few selected tourism flights were allowed to recommence. Here, various EU countries, United Kingdom, United States, and Middle Eastern countries to facilitate crew changes, regardless of the nationality of the seafarers involved, are to be praised.  Obtaining required visas, however, remains a significant issue for many non-EU seafarers seeking to travel to and from the EU Schengen Area. This was owing to the restricted capacity of EU Member State consulates in the major labor supply nations, many of which were closed for extended periods. ICS has advocated for the EU Member States to be able to award visas to seafarers on arrival or grant a temporary exemption from visa requirements entirely. This is a major issue faced by crew change allowed countries during the pandemic.

Availability of Crew Change Flights

Concerning the ongoing lack of international flights in crew change allowed countries from major crew change ports to the countries of seafarer residence, ICS has collaborated with the International Maritime Employers' Council and others, as well as the International Air Transport Association (IATA), to estimate the likely demand for crew change flights and identify the airports from which they will depart.

Because it is anticipated that, at least initially, only a limited number of airports will be accessible for crew changes, ICS has been investigating the necessity for certain ships to be redirected to ports near major airports from which flights are available.

BIMCO COVID-19 Crew Change Clause

BIMCO has introduced a new clause called 'BIMCO COVID-19 Crew Change Clause for Time Charter Parties 2020' as a solution to the crew change dilemma. This allows ship owners to divert for crew changes if COVID-19-related limitations prohibit crew changes from taking place at the ports or locations specified. This also attempts to balance the interests of owners and shipping companies by imposing a notice requirement on owners.

Nevertheless, time and expenditure associated with mandatory quarantine at the port of entry following crew change do not appear to be expressly addressed in the BIMCO clause. Members may choose to include a customized clause in this case. Risks are always resolved with precise terms, and it is advised for members to attempt and minimize any conflicts caused by crew changes at this tough time.

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