India’s punitive Covid-19 crisis has added to a mountain of challenges for ship managers making crew changes – some choosing to avoid employing the country’s sailors and others seeking to overcome obstacles to hire them.
The nation is grappling with a huge spike in coronavirus infections, with a daily total of new cases at just under 350,000 on Wednesday, up from a peak of over 400,000 a day a week earlier.
The situation comes amid a crew change crisis that has been going on for more than a year and threatens to cut off the supply of new sailors to the third largest naval officer pool in the world.
As the latest wave of Covid-19 in India grew, sailors who recently visited the country have been banned from traveling to countries where crew changes often take place.
Indian sailors can still join ships and return home from Europe, despite the terrible Covid-19 emergency in their home country.
As countries like Singapore ban crew members who have recently traveled to the subcontinent, Dutch crew agency Boers Crew Services told TradeWinds how travel in northern Europe remains possible.
The agency, which makes more than 20,000 crew changes a year, said it uses a system of testing, quarantine and visas on arrival when embassies are closed.
Managing Director Peter Smit said his company works with managers and owners like Anglo-Eastern, V.Ships, CMA CGM and Peter Doehle.
Boers has agreements with several airlines and travel agents to transport maritime personnel.
“We have no problem with the Indian crew. We can bring them in, we can change the crew and bring the guys back,” he added.
Carl Schou, chairman and chief executive of Norwegian firm Wilhelmsen Ship Management, said the company had suspended crew changes from India until the end of May.
“With that in effect, it means that the late Indian crew will not be able to sign until we find a crew of other nationalities who can relieve them,” he said.
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“At the moment, there is no alternative but to count on the solidarity of our crew to extend their contract further until we find a way to relieve them.”
Wallem Group, a Hong Kong-based ship manager, also looked for sailors of other nationalities as the Covid-19 crisis worsened in India.
“The Indian Covid situation has made it extremely difficult for Indian sailors to join ships at this time,” Acting Managing Director John-Kaare Aune told TradeWinds.
“We have put in place additional quarantine arrangements in hotels to rejoin the crew and improved our protocols for protecting against crew changes against Covid. “
About 38% of its sailors are from India.
Many shipowners are asking for a break and crew changes involving Indian sailors for a period of several months, said Rajesh Unni, managing director of Singapore-based Synergy Marine.
“There are too many moving parts right now, and it’s best to squat down and wait for things to work out,” he said, noting that his company has diversified its workforce.
But he warned against a “knee-jerk” reaction by abandoning the Indian sailors and trainees.
“Yes, in the short term, it’s a struggle, but in [the] long-term perspective, we must not stray from any nationality given the [it is] just a temporary situation, ”he said.
Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSM), which has a large number of Indian officers out of a total of the country’s 4,250 sailors, said he was facing difficulties making routine crew changes to relieve the sailors.
“With travel bans restricting the movements of our Indian sailors, BSM is relying on its pools of sailors in other countries to replace Indian nationals on board who must return home or to arm the ships joining our fleet,” the company said.
“However, this is unfair and unreasonable to Indian sailors and can only be a temporary solution.”
The situation results in increased costs for ship managers as the demand for non-Indian seafarers increases.
“The demand for Chinese crews is already booming, leading to double-digit salary increases since the start of the pandemic,” said Simon Frank, director of human resources at Thome Group.
“With the situation exacerbated by the lack of global recognition of seafarers as key workers for priority vaccination, we anticipate a major crew crisis in the immediate future. “
But some ship managers are finding a way.
Anglo-Eastern general manager Bjorn Hojgaard, whose seagoing workforce is 65% Indian, has not replaced these sailors with non-Indian crews, except in isolated cases.
Only around 1.3% of the company’s seafarers are in arrears. And although Hojgaard said the past few weeks have been more difficult, the company is making progress in vaccinating sailors and bringing in sailors who have already recovered from the virus.
Avoiding Indian sailors is not an option.
“The reality is that there is nowhere we could go and find a replacement crew for a pool of our size,” Hojgaard said.
“Almost all seafarers are associated with a management or property company, and ‘poaching’ in someone else’s pool would only be a short-term relief.”