Plight of Indian seafarers: Neither able to return home, nor join a ship

Shipmanagement company Synergy Marine Group has been waiting in vain since May 12 for a government permission to land a chartered flight in Mumbai to bring back 22 Indian seafarers from Denmark.

Synergy booked a 60-seater plane to repatriate the crew mostly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala who have spent 8-9 months at sea. The master and 21 other crew had signed off from the now sold vessel ‘Jal Anant’ at Gulfhavn port in Denmark.

To utilise capacity fully, Synergy even offered 40 seats for free to Indian nationals looking to return from Denmark.

“We are still waiting for the Indian government to give us landing permission,” said Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO, Synergy Marine Group.

The delay is one of the many instances that demonstrates the confusion and apathy of the government in facilitating crew change of Indian seafarers at foreign ports after the pandemic outbreak.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has allowed chartered flights to take off and land in India with crew. This includes approval to MMS Maritime (India) Pvt Ltd for a chartered flight from Bangalore to Colombo to facilitate the movement of Indian seafarers to get employment opportunity in South Korea.

Italian cruise operator Costa Crociere S.p.A. operated three chartered flights to Goa earlier this week to repatriate 414 seafarers from that state.

“No fresh charter flight permission was given to shipping companies this week,” Sanjay Prashar, a member of India’s National Shipping Board, said while expressing “absolute disappointment” with the government.

There is no cost to the government for chartered flights arranged by shipping companies for transporting seafarers. Unable to understand the delay, Prashar said.

“Seafarer on a ship has a right to return home. Seafarers at home, can’t work from home; they need to be on a ship. Its simple, yet the government makes it complex. Why keep seafarers under lockdown if they are essential workers,” he said.

“Ships have a schedule,” he said while urging the government to keep timeline for approvals.

The forced stop of crew changeover due to COVID-19 has attracted the ire of Indian seafarers at a time when tens of thousands of workers are losing jobs in other industries/sectors in the country. But, ships continue to need crew to transport essential commodities, providing job opportunities to seafarers staying home for months, waiting for their next assignment.

With no clear indication as to when international flights will start and no standard operating procedures (SOP) for crew change at foreign ports, the seafaring community is on the edge.

This has annoyed Indian seafarers more so because Filipinos, Sri Lankans and even Burmese are flying to join ships, some of them not even qualified to man large ships such as very large crude carriers as fleet owners/managers hire crew who are easily available to keep their ships operational.

“Due to current policies and no positive action, thousands of Indian seafarers sitting at home are on the verge of losing jobs and our well-earned reputation,” said a seafarer.” If no action is taken swiftly, Indian seafarers will be history in the shipping industry,” he said, adding that Singapore has allowed crew change from May 22.

Seafarers say they are ready to ensure pain and inconvenience, travel thousands of kilometres by road, be in quarantine before joining a ship as per rules, all just to relieve their burnt-out colleagues on board working on extended contracts.

For those looking to get off their ships and return home, the agony is piling up.

A voyage from US to China, takes some 52 days. “That’s how long before we call a port for crew change. The delay in releasing the SOP for crew change at foreign ports just prolongs the agony. Seafaring nations like China and Philippines are way ahead in facilitating crew change,” said another seafarer, prodding the government to “move fast” on the issue.

As the government fumbles on finalising an SOP for crew change of Indian seafarers at foreign ports, cargo-laden ships are diverting to India en-route to destinations, just to carry out crew change for which an SOP is already in place.

Three Singapore flagged LPG tankers, Pyxis Alfa, Shahrastani and Shaamit as well as the Singapore-flagged ore carrier PSU Seventh are deviating to India over the next few days to sign off crew.

“All these diversions are happening because some owners are concerned about their ships and crew and not because of ship managers. Ship managers are just taking the credit,” said a shipping industry executive.

In fact, some ship managers are “trying to pressure seafarers against raising their voice for deviation”, threatening not to deviate even when the ship owner has given the go ahead for deviation, he said. “Ship managers, with a few exceptions, are more of a road-block for crew change, he added.

Ship managers, on their part, have blamed the high cost of crew change in India, as a stumbling block.

“When they are talking of high costs, they should also talk about the millions of dollars saved during the last three months when no crew change happened,” he said.

There is another reason for such urgency by fleet owners to deviate their ships just for crew change.

On May 5, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) circulated a framework of protocols to 174 member states, for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

On May 13, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council have given governments time until June 15 to repatriate crew working beyond their stipulated contract time, by following the IMO guidelines.

The key question facing the shipping industry now is what will happen if India does not re-start international flights by June 15, when the one-month deadline set by the unions to resume crew change, ends.

“Even assuming that flights resume, it will be limited and difficult to get seats,” he said.