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Crew Change Crisis

Newbuilds drive skyrocketing Chinese seafarer wages and repatriation headaches

Photo: moto moto sc - Unsplash Crew on vessel
Wages for Chinese seafarers have continued to soar on the back of demand for crew onboard newbuildings, while repatriation at the end of contracts has turned into a difficult and costly challenge.

Given China’s strict Covid-19 border controls demand for Chinese seafarers to crew newbuildings leaving the nations yards has risen sharply over the last two years. The world’s largest shipbuilding nation continues to operate a “zero-Covid” strategy, which in practice means owners and managers have little choice but source local, Chinese crew for newbuildings sailing away from shipyards in the country.

The result according to industry executives is wage rates for Chinese seafarers have as much as tripled. Sources indicate in the range of $1,800 - $2,500 per month for AB ratings, and $6,000 and above for junior officers.

In some positive news though one industry source believes the wage situation has stabilised for Chinese ratings and officers with an improvement in the demand and supply balance as more Chinese crewed vessels are transferred to other nationalities of seafarers. However, it is expected to take some time for wages to start to reduce.

Chinese seafarers serving on international vessels had already reached record numbers in the first year of the pandemic and at the end of 2020 there were some 17,175 newly registered Chinese seafarers serving on international vessels bringing the total to 122,034 according to China Maritime Safety Administration.

Major ship managers have also reacted to meet demand and in December last year V.Group Shanghai was granted a Chinese seafarer recruitment license.

Normally managers prefer to place their most experienced and trusted crews onboard newbuildings on their early voyages, rather than ones that they have no experience working with. And potentially communication challenges with if they do not have Chinese speaking superintendents.

Quickly changing crews onboard after the newbuilding leaves China would seem like an obvious option, however, repatriation of Chinese seafarers is both challenging and costly.

Chinese seafarers have to quarantine for two, or often three weeks, abroad after leaving the vessel, prior to flying back to China. However, many countries only allow for a maximum of 72-hours from when a seafarer disembarks the vessel to boarding a flight for repatriation and as a result there are few countries from which Chinese seafarers can be repatriated. Full wages are required to be paid during the quarantine period abroad.

Flights are limited in number as travel into China is highly restricted and therefore very expensive. Seafarers are also required to take direct flights further limiting options. On return to China the seafarer themselves will face another minimum of two weeks quarantine, and often a further period on return to their home province.

A new concern according to one source is even where a crew change is successfully planned to take place between a Chinese crew and a different nationality crew, the surge in omicron variant infections has seen seafarers arriving from the Philippines only to test positive prior to boarding the vessel, despite previously successful management protocols being place.