Dangerous situations threaten to arise in international shipping because seafarers have been on board for too long due to the corona crisis. Shipping companies and unions warn against this. Crew members cannot travel to and from ports properly, as restrictions continue to apply at airports and borders. Interest groups speak of failing governments worldwide.
Some 400,000 seafarers are said to have been at sea for longer than is stated in their contract. For sailors, who often work with contracts of 9 to 11 months, the period that they have been continuously on a ship may have increased to 15 months. These are seafarers from the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Russia, among others. Officers, who usually work on contracts of several months, cannot be repaid.
Incidents and disasters
“If we don’t get visas, the chances of incidents and disasters will increase by the day,” said Karin Orsel, chairman of MF Shipping Group, which has some 1,000 seafarers on 54 ships worldwide. “Crew members get tired and want to go home.”
Her company is now unable to apply for visas for hundreds of employees. “This is primarily a humanitarian problem because people have been at sea for far too long and want to go to their families.” In addition, the logistics puzzle is becoming increasingly complex. “We have a new ship in China, but we are unable to pick it up.”
Visas are difficult or impossible to obtain because diplomatic posts are closed or function limited. The alternative is a ‘visa on arrival’ (voa) upon arrival at Schiphol. But the voas are only given to seafarers who board a ship from a Dutch shipping company or sail under the Dutch flag in a Dutch port.
Relaxation of visa rules
The Marechaussee can also issue no more than 65 VOAs per day, because according to Schengen rules, among other things, biometric data must be provided. This is done with devices, two of which are located at Schiphol.
“But to get the redemption of crews back on track, hundreds of voas a day are needed,” said Annet Koster, director of the interest group of shipping companies KVNR. “We want the visa rules to be relaxed temporarily so that more VoAs can be issued.” According to the KNVR, this does not have to be a problem. “Many seafarers are already known here because they have been to Europe before. Their data is already in the system.”
Seafarers are a crucial occupational group for the world economy. There must be acted upon
Koster points to a protocol that employers and employees have drawn up for corridors, whereby seafarers can travel in a controlled manner between airports and seaports. “It is now up to governments to take over. Seafarers are a crucial occupational group for the global economy. Action must be taken.”
According to the largest international shipping collective agreement, which includes approximately 190,000 seafarers, the maximum term for a contract is nine months. Due to ‘force majeure’, or unforeseen force majeure, that was extended twice. A corridor plan was presented at the beginning of May, asking governments to introduce it before June 16.
“Employers ‘and workers’ organizations now say that after that date there will be no question of force majeure,” says Sascha Meijer of the international nautical union Nautilus. “Because governments have had plenty of time to make repayments possible.” After June 16, shipping companies and unions will file complaints with governments, because they will prevent redemptions, which will jeopardize safety. “Unions will actively help get crews off ships,” says Meijer. “The ultimate consequence is that ships come to a standstill. “
It is work, sleep, work, sleep
Boredom and fatigue increase on many ships. “You can no longer go ashore. It is working, sleeping, working, sleeping and that will start to sink in after a certain time,” says Captain Kees Wiersum, who sees his mainly Filipino crew getting more cranky by the day. “Here in China, where we are now, there is a box in front of the gangway. You can walk something of four square meters on the shore. So you are actually just trapped onboard your ship. Our shipping company does everything to onboard, but they constantly run into all kinds of authorities. Port authorities, local authorities, national authorities. “
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to get visa-issuing abroad going again but says it depends on local authorities. When issuing visas on arrival at Schiphol, crew members for Dutch shipping companies and ships flying the Dutch flag have priority, because capacity is limited. It is being examined whether additional measures are needed to get the repayments going.