Crew Change has not been a straight forward issue to work around in the COVID-19 situation, with fears of imported cases in many nations lurking. Still, countries like Singapore have made case-by-case exceptions for special circumstances such as medical reasons for crew to be able to sign-off and return back to their home country. However, the approach has only served as a band aid over a deeper problem as more and more seafarers overstay their contracts on ships and seafarer well-being start to take a toll.
Singapore being one of the busiest ports and having the top 5 largest ship registries in the world has not been sitting idly by while the situation unravelled. Gwee Guo Duan, Assistant General Secretary of SMOU told SeaVoices about the ‘Singapore Crew Change Workgroup (SGCCWG)’ that has been working on a viable solution since April 2020 for the crew change process to be implemented at our ports. Gwee sits at the workgroup as a representative of SMOU, providing union perspective for decision making.
Made up of maritime tripartite partners – Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) and SMOU– the workgroup first met on 21 April to address challenges and come up with a watertight framework to facilitate crew change in a safe manner. The International Maritime Employers Council (IMEC) also joined the workgroup on 19 May 2020 to contribute to the objective. Due to the international scale of crew change challenges and many nations still struggling with the pandemic at hand, the SGCCWG focused on working on developing medium term solutions for this matter.
A comprehensive guidebook
SMOU formulated a survey on the 22 April to provide the workgroup with a rough indication of the number of seafarers due to sign off in Singapore. The survey was conducted with SMOU collective bargaining agreement companies, and was subsequently extended to a wider sample to SSA and IMEC members. The survey played an important role in providing concrete statistics for the SGCCWG to base their discussions on when approaching agencies such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to work out flights for crew change.
To gain consensus of the other nations that might be involved in repatriation and sending of seafarer relievers to and from Singapore, tripartite partners drew up a comprehensive checklist of processes to facilitate crew change in the midst of the pandemic. The step-by-step flow chart featuring various scenarios of seafarer signing-off from a vessel or signing-on to a vessel is detailed in the guidebook. Mandatory stay-home notice periods for relievers and assessment of signing-off crew by a sea port doctor before disembarkation are some examples of added precautions to ensure that crew change is done with minimal risk of COVID-19 transmission. The SGCCWG had to consider all angles and scenarios in their discussions so as to prevent any aggravation of COVID-19 cases in nations facilitating crew change.
A model framework for crew change
After many meetings and hard work put in, the Singapore Crew Change Guidebook was released and circulated on 1 June to the maritime community. On the 11 June, the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) saw the value of the guidebook and sent out a circular letter to encourage member states to take it as a model and develop similar guides to address crew change in their own nation.