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Crew Change Crisis

Australia's new crew change policy is neat, plausible… and wrong

Photo: Marcus Hand seafarers.jpg
Shipping Australia is very concerned about the ongoing crisis caused by a lack of crew changes. Hundreds of thousands of people are trapped at sea and hundreds of thousands of people are waiting (without pay) to go to sea. It is a humanitarian crisis.

We have long advocated that measures should be taken to enable crew changes to occur as this is in the health and safety interests of the crew and in the vital economic interests of Australia.

Shipping Australia fully agrees with the proposition that governments should respect international law so that seafarers can go home to their families and loved ones at the end of their 11-month shifts.

AMSA’s current and near-future approach

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has announced in marine notice 10/20 that it will extend its current flexible approach to enforcement of seafarer service lengths during the COVID pandemic. Shipping Australia applauds that decision. It is vital that shipping continues to move and that cargo continues to flow. The current policy helps, in part, to address situations where crew are serving excessively long times without hindering the flow of trade. It is not a perfect solution – that can only be delivered by governments.

But Shipping Australia must take issue with the announcement of a February 2021 end-date to its flexible approach. At that point, it will revert to an earlier, more strict, compliance and enforcement approach. AMSA argues that can “adjust” and “develop new plans for seafarer repatriation”.

But there are extreme on-the-ground difficulties in changing crew. This, more strict, enforcement policy does not take these conditions into account.

Root cause of the crisis: government restrictions

It should be remembered that the seafarer crew change crisis was created by, and is continued by, an overly-restrictive approach by governments. We know the crew change crisis was created by governments because shipping companies changed-over hundreds of thousands of maritime crews on a frequent and regular basis before governments imposed their restrictions.

Rather than attempting to find workable solutions to keep ships and seafarers moving, governments around the world opted to greatly hinder crew changes instead. Australian State and Territory governments – with the notable and praiseworthy exception of Queensland – have been particularly restrictive.

Litany of restrictions

Western Australia introduced a hard border, refused to facilitate crew changes, did not support a perfectly workable plan to set up a secure crew change corridor and transfer hub and, more recently, introduced policies that make crew changes in the remote parts of Western Australia completely unworkable.

Victoria took a long time to produce a workable exemption for maritime crew and even almost prevented ship-to-ship transfers in its waters. NSW has come under repeated criticism for not facilitating crew changes, frequently changing the rules and either not granting exemptions or not granting them in good time. We are aware of one case in which a seafarer arrived at Sydney Airport intending to travel a short distance to Port Botany, join a ship and then leave Australia by sea shortly thereafter. It didn’t happen. He was thrown into a 14-day quarantine, missed the sailing of the ship and eventually flew back home.

With hardened borders all over Australia, maritime crews were unnecessarily and repeatedly thrown into quarantine around the country as they tried to go about their vital business. The general public may not realise it, but Australia was in a deep crisis and parts of the Australian shipping industry came perilously close to being forced to shut down because of a lack of an ability to move crew and specialists around.

IMO and world governments acted; Australian governments did not

There have been numerous protocols published by the IMO setting out how to safely carry out crew changes. Back on 21 September this year, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (resolution (MSC.473 (ES.2)) recommended that government authorities designate a national focal point for crew change. A wide variety of countries created such a focal point and that list includes Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Cook Islands, Cyprus, France, Greece, Philippines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Spain, United Arab Emirates and Vanuatu.

Was has been done in Australia? Fairly little, as far as we can tell. The industry was only advised yesterday that the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications would be that focal point. The recommendation for a focal point was released by the IMO about eight or nine weeks ago. What has been done in that time? The industry was advised that the Department’s pre-existing email address is the focal point. We are also advised that a list of contacts may also be provided. Meanwhile, seafarers continue to suffer.

On the ground realities

Let’s go back to marine notice 10/2020.

The Authority has also not explained how the crew change crisis has abated, or how AMSA believes the crisis will abate by the end of February, to justify its more strict enforcement approach.

The reality on the ground very much suggests that the crew change crisis has not abated, likely will not abate, and that shipping companies simply cannot carry out crew changes easily in Australia. That won’t change until State governments change their approach.

Impossible circumstances; frequently changing rules

Western Australia provides a particularly insightful example as to the difficulties in carrying out crew changes. The state closed its borders in early April this year and issued the first exemption for maritime crew on 5 April. There have been six sets of approvals with each later set of rules revoking the preceding set.

Approval number four (the “Quarantine (Closing the Border) Approval for Maritime Crew (No 4)) of 20 October – since superseded – presented particular difficulties for carrying out crew changes.

Approval No 4 required maritime crew off-signing in remote ports of Western Australia to catch a private charter flight to Perth before they could leave the country. They then had to catch that flight within eight hours of leaving a ship. There were concerns that there would not even be any private charter flights available to fly small handfuls of crew from remote WA to Perth. And, even if there were, charter flight operators would not accept seafarers as passengers without being presented with a negative COVID test result.

But there were difficulties getting COVID testers to go ships – especially in remote WA where specialists have to be flown by helicopter to ships waiting offshore. The turnaround time for a COVID test from remote WA is three days and, during that wait-time, a crew member would have had to stay isolated onboard a ship. Ships may be giant vessels but the living spaces are pretty small and much of the crew infrastructure – canteens and so on – is shared. At the same time visas and all the other logistics such as matching ship arrival times to international flights and arranging hotels would have had to be coordinated.

Shipping Australia was advised that carrying out crew changes in such situations was frankly unworkable and the industry largely stopped trying to carry out crew changes in remote WA.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that crew changes could somehow have been carried out under Approval No 4. But, since then, the rules have changed twice.

No 4 was revoked and repealed by No 5 on 30 October – a mere 10 days after No 4 was first published. And No 5 was itself revoked 14 days later by the Maritime Crew Directions which appear to be the current set of rules as of the time of writing. A superficial reading reveals that the Maritime Crew Directions largely appear to be similar to the previous sets of rules.

However, that does not change the fact that within the last month, prior to the date of this article, there have been three consecutive sets of legal rules governing crew changes in Western Australia.

How, therefore, can it sensibly be said that shipping companies can “adjust” and “develop new plans for seafarer repatriation” under such impossible circumstances and such fast-changing rules?

Recent events

State / Territory Governments recently began to lower or ease State borders. Then there was a detection of a cluster of COVID19 cases in South Australia, a place that was thought to have eradicated SARS-CoV-2.

Borders were immediately reinstated. We have seen in the general media that passengers who left Adelaide by air for Darwin had to go into a two-week quarantine upon arrival or immediately return home. People from SA who had already arrived in the Northern Territory were told to go into quarantine.

Shipping companies need to fly seafarers to / from places of arrival in arrival to wherever the ships are or will be. In such circumstances, with the law changing and new quarantine requirements being imposed while people are literally flying to their destinations, how can it be argued that shipping companies can “adjust” and “develop new plans for seafarer repatriation”?

Consequences

In the current pandemic, detaining ships for breaches of seafarer length-of-service rules will not help. If AMSA truly intends to carry out an enforcement policy that prevents ships from proceeding to sea until all the non-conformities can be addressed, then it is possible that ships could be detained at berths in ports around Australia.

Shipping is extraordinarily important to Australia. Pre-COVID, ocean shipping carried about 99.93 per cent by weight of all commodities and goods into and out of the country. By value, ocean shipping carried about 85 per cent of cargo. Ocean shipping’s market share is now likely even higher as the aviation industry has been extremely adversely affected during COVID.

Australia’s seaports collectively handle about $592.9bn of cargo a year. While incredibly valuable in itself, the handling that cargo through the supply chain supports huge numbers of jobs. In a 2013 study, the Australian Logistics Council estimated that the logistics industry employs about 1.2 million people. That figure alone represents about 10% of the current Australian workforce.

Directly or indirectly, Australian jobs in industries such as trucking, warehousing, railroading, mining, farming, logistics, general retail and supermarkets are utterly reliant on unhindered ocean shipping.

If ships are detained and and the result is that they block ports around the country, then we can only imagine the consequences for employment and how it would hinder the ability to get goods, foodstuffs and medical supplies to shops, supermarkets, medical practices, hospitals and ordinary Australian families.

Time for a re-think

The new marine notice reminds Shipping Australia of the aphorism coined by the American writer H. L. Mencken: “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible… and wrong”.

Marine notice 10/20 is neat, plausible and wrong. It doesn’t address the root cause: government restrictions and official failures to facilitate the movement of seafarers.

It is a shame that a binding marine notice cannot be served on Australian State and Territory governments and official departments instructing them to facilitate crew changes.

Until State governments facilitate crew changes, Shipping Australia calls for the continuation of the current compliance and enforcement policies beyond February 2021.

But the even-more important call for action is a call for State and Territory governments to facilitate ways for seafarers to leave and join ships in a safe manner.

That is the only solution that is neat, plausible… and right.

Original article published on Shipping Australia

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