COVID-19 Crew Change Crisis is still problematic

While the number of seafarers impacted by the COVID-19 crew change crisis has fallen in recent months, the shipping industry is concerned that the number could be on the rise again with new variants of the virus.

According to the the latest analysis, 200,000 seafarers are currently affected by the crew change crisis, down by about half from the height of the crisis when 400,000 needed to be repatriated. Throughout, a similar number have been waiting to join ships.

Stakeholders warn, however, that the crisis is far from over and the number could rise again as governments reintroduce stricter border control and travel restrictions due to new COVID-19 variants making it harder for crew to transfer to and from ships.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), so far only 55 countries and two associate members of the IMO have declared seafarers as key workers.

In a landmark ruling in December 2020, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that governments have failed to protect seafarers’ rights as set out in international law under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. The UN agency called on states to recognize seafarers as key workers “without delay”.

Importantly, issues about prioritizing vaccinations for seafarers must also be addressed. Vaccine passports being considered by some States pose a potential barrier to crew change as seafarers from developing nations are unlikely to have an opportunity to receive vaccines until July at the earliest, the ICS notes.

The crew change crisis is not resolved but has reached a situation where it has been more manageable. However, there is great concern over the increased travel restrictions being imposed by governments in response to new variants.

Seafarers must be designated as key workers. The crisis is still ongoing. Governments will not be able to vaccinate their citizens without the shipping industry or, most importantly, their seafarers.

International Maritime Organization Secretary-General, Kitack Lim, said seafarers now, more than ever, need to be designated as key workers to ensure priority vaccination and access to safe transit and travel.

“One year ago, as the world plunged into the COVID-19 crisis, I spoke of our voyage together and the need for collaboration and cooperation. I am glad to say that over these past 12 months, we have worked intensely with many different stakeholders to address challenging conditions,” said Secretary-General Lim.

“One of the major achievements of last year contributing to this was the adoption of the United Nations Assembly resolution calling on UN Member States to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers and to implement relevant measures to allow stranded seafarers to be repatriated and others to join ships, and to ensure access to medical care.

“But we cannot be complacent. Fewer than 60 countries so far have heeded our call for seafarers to be designated as key workers.

More countries need to do so if we are to resolve this crisis and ensure seafarers are treated fairly and so that their travel to and from their place of work is properly facilitated. There is still a long way to go before we are back to a normal crew change regime,” added Secretary-General Lim.

Stephen Cotton, Secretary General of the International Transport Workers Federation, agrees that key worker designation for seafarers is critical to getting the crew change crisis under control.

“The stark reality is that only a few handfuls of countries have treated seafarers with the respect they deserve by designating them real key worker status. Unless government’s move from the protectionist positions that they’ve been in for over 12 months now, and allow seafarers genuine free movement and prioritization for vaccinations sadly the situation could easily spiral out of control yet again,” said Cotton.


Mr Mike Schuler