In the middle of May 2020, the Singapore Maritime Employers Federation (SMEF) together with SMOU released a joint circular to seafarers, acknowledging their plight amidst crew change challenges, and appreciating the value that they contribute to global trade. Assuring of progress being made at the tripartite level, SMEF and SMOU reaffirmed their commitment to help seafarers during the COVID-19 situation.
The magnitude of the pandemic has pervaded the entire maritime industry. Even though seafarers have faced many troubles during this time, ship owners with vessels all over the world have their own share of problems.
Member companies of SMEF collectively employ over 5,000 seafarers of different nationalities including Chinese, Filipinos and Indians. SeaVoices approached Captain Lim Swee Aun, Chairman of the SMEF to find out more about how shipping employers have been coping during the pandemic, and what is being done to help seafarers.
The difficulty with crew change
For shipping employers, changing of crew is a regular administrative process that shore-based colleagues have to make arrangements for. But developments from the COVID-19 crisis has made this familiar process a challenging one.
Ships set sail on their voyage moving from port to port, each belonging to different countries with differing policies and logistical processes for crew change. Coupled with the complex procedure of sending a reliever to replace the crew signing off while only limited flights are available, facilitating the signing off of crew has become an almost insurmountable task.
Companies have however extended crew contracts to allow them to continue working on board and earning a salary. Seafarers are met with mixed feelings towards this as they are keen on returning home, but on the other hand are unsure of when they will be able to sign on a ship again if the current situation does not improve. As for crew that are ending their contractual period, meticulous arrangements have been made to disembark from countries like Norway, Germany, Japan, Korea and Singapore that have available flights for their passage home.
Woes of the shipping employer
Regulatory systems for port operations are also different between countries. Whenever ships call at a port, the crew has to adapt to a new system established by the local port authority. This impairs the effectiveness of operations at a port especially during an emergency such as bringing an injured seafarer ashore to seek medical help.
Captain Lim also added that because of declined trade and cargo, ship owners have an increasing lay-up of idling vessels. This affects not just the already diminishing revenue of the company, but incurs a large amount of docking fees while ships dock at ports to wait out the coronavirus situation. Captain Lim acknowledged that it has not been easy for the employers as the situation has “hit us very badly”.
Seeing the predicament that shipping companies are in, he urged maritime authorities to consider extending waivers or subsidies for vessels to carry out warm or cold lay-ups in Singapore waters while the COVID-19 situation persists. This will help companies ease the financial burden that has been placed on them so that their businesses can stay afloat until they see brighter days.
Continued collaboration is the way forward
During this time, SMEF has joined bigger stakeholders like the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union, Singapore Shipping Association and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore to provide ideas and experiences to help the maritime industry.
Captain Lim understands the dilemma for both employers and seafarers during this situation. With his eyes on both parties, he said that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution” but the continued collaboration of tripartite partners will help us to progress forward.
SMEF will continue to work with SMOU to look after seafarers’ interest, and strive for a win-win outcome “so that seafarers that are serving onboard have the security that employers are trying their best to send them home when their contracts are due.”