Unions are not the only one who have been trying to lobby for seafarer crew change and for them to be recognised as key workers of the global supply chain. Although seafarers themselves have felt the direct impact of crew change restrictions, shipping companies are the other party that have been dramatically affected. We are heartened to have shipping companies who are important stakeholders of the global maritime industry join in to recognise the important work of seafarers and the needs they have during this time of a pandemic.
Due to many challenges brought by COVID-19, shipping companies have been struggling to cope with reduced revenue, while managing their fleet of ships and attending to the needs of their seafarers all around the world.
Interdependence of seafarer and company
V-Ships is one such company that have been working hard to help their sea-going employees through this season. SeaVoices spoke to Captain Rajesh Tandon, Global Director of Industrial Relations and Seafarer Development at V Group Manpower Services to gain perspective of a shipping employer during this time of uncertainty.
When asked how the company has been affected by the on-going situation, Captain Rajesh said, “the single biggest effect we have seen has been that of all crew changes being put on hold or drastically restricted.” He went on to talk about how all seafarers, both at sea and on shore, continue to feel the negative impact of the situation. Seafarers who are stuck on ships have to serve an extended period of time, while those that are currently ashore are unable to get back out to sea to earn a wage to support their families. This inadvertently affects the company because “without healthy and happy crews to man these vessels, it would not be possible to do what we do,” explained Captain Rajesh.
The extension of contracts will also cause seafarers to become physically and emotionally fatigued, leading to situations where accidents and unsafe vessel operation can happen. For those reasons, V-Ships has naturally held the welfare and wellbeing of their seafarers as a priority, even more so right now.
Health & Wellness
The physical and mental wellness of seafarers have been V-Ships’ concern during the coronavirus outbreak. To protect the current crew onboard their ships, the company has been providing COVID-19 testing for on signers to ensure the safety of current crew members and to prevent any spread of the virus on ships. The company has also set up a ‘Covid Crew Command Centre’ where support is provided for crew and their family members during this period.
Seafarers who are feeling ill can also utilise a service available 24/7, set up by the company where they can speak to a shore-based physician about their symptoms. This service is important as seafarers might not be able to get onshore to visit a doctor. Even when their ship is docked at a port, countries may not allow seafarers to leave their ships due to preventive policies. For mental wellness, an employee assistance programme is also made available to seafarers through ComPsych to provide health advice to the crew.
To further equip seafarers to overcome mental hurdles, V.Group’s training arm also offered a module to train seafarers in their resilience towards mental health and wellbeing.
Connectivity and Communication
“92% of seafarers rank the importance of internet connection on board above pay,” was how Captain Rajesh described the need for connectivity of seafarers, especially when many are facing extended periods on board ships while travel restrictions are still in place. He said that internet connectivity has been made more accessible to seafarers affected by the pandemic by increasing crew internet allowance. This will help seafarers remain connected to their family and loved ones, making the unfortunate situation slightly more manageable.
Leveraging on technology and connectivity, the V-ships has provided many channels where seafarers can be connected with company touch points. Seafarers are able reach out to their company headquarters through the ‘V-Ships seafarers app’ and electronic mail. The company has also created a dedicated COVID-19 portal where they put up latest information and news regarding the situation, and other company directives. Circulars and letters are also distributed to the vessels to keep the crew on board updated with the latest developments.
Helping seafarers get home
Repatriation efforts is not all bad news with V-Ships as Captain Rajesh confidently told SeaVoices, “we have worked to get their travel arrangements made as soon as it is possible, and to date we have been able to repatriate over 1,000 seafarers from across the globe.” Since the start of the pandemic, crewing teams have been extending support to every seafarer and their families, providing dedicated contact points for questions regarding the situation.
The positive outcome has its share of challenges as shore-based colleagues work with multiple regulatory bodies and authorities across countries to make necessary arrangements for each repatriation case. Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the seafarer is crucial when making such arrangements countries with different policies and measures. Even though the process may be cumbersome, the hard work has brought many seafarers home safely.
A global effort
“We need to work better together with global authorities to get all seafarers designated as key workers to ensure their travel and movement is prioritised to support global transportation and trade”, said Captain Rajesh. The challenge with crew change is a global issue that not one organisation or country can resolve by itself. As V-Ships rally with maritime bodies to help their seafarers safely return home or work on board ships, let us remember the important contribution of seafarers, supplying the world with essential goods.
The Singapore Crew Change Workgroup produced a Crew Change Guidebook listing detailed steps Singapore should take for the facilitation of repatriation of seafarers to sign off, and of relievers to sign on ships. This guidebook has also been circulated amongst International Maritime Organisation member states as a reference for countries to implement a crew change framework for their nation. The COVID-19 situation is still evolving, and the workgroup is carefully navigating through it so that changing of crew can be done in the safest and best possible way while ensuring safety of both seafarers and Singaporeans. Together, we can overcome this!