Caught on the high seas: shipping companies and governments faced with sanitary landing restrictions

Exclusive interview with Niels Bruus, Maersk Line Head of Marine HR shows crisis in replacement of crews

The logistics chain is 'turned upside down' by the coronavirus, but this is not the first time that cargo supply has been affected by a global crisis, so shipping companies, ports and logistics companies have been implementing measures to cope from day one the challenges of this particular crisis. What is atypical is the sanitary restrictions that limit human contact and interaction. This crisis is unprecedented in a cross-cutting manner across all industries, and the logistics chain workers have felt the direct and strong impact. Such is the case of the crews of sea cargo vessels, who are 'trapped' in their ships, with no possibilities to disembark and return to their countries of origin. As there is no single sanitary protocol established by a universal organization, it is the local authorities of the countries that determine the rules for the crew to disembark. It is there where a conflict occurs between government health authorities and corporate executives, where the only injured party is the crew member whose only desire is to return home.

Concerned about the world's crews 'caught on the high seas', Maritime World conversed exclusively with Niels Bruus, Head of Marine HR Maersk Line, who shared the measures and actions that the Danish company is carrying out to repatriate its crew members. “The commitment our crew members have shown to keep the supply chain active has been outstanding, to say the least, but we cannot expect this to continue. We need to create a visible line for each of the crew of when they can return to their loved ones, that is our main priority ”, expresses the executive of the shipping company.

Sanitized and forgotten

For Bruus, the problem is already beginning to escape the capabilities that the shipping company has to protect the well-being of the workers on board and ensure their healthy return home. “Our sanitary protocols contemplate the cleaning of the ships and procedures to ensure social distancing between crew members. But the decision to keep them on board has already reached a critical point where we need immediate action due to the fatigue that being on board for so many months has caused them.", highlights the executive.

The problem is that there are countries that have ongoing protocols and others that do not, and the truth is that this has been the trend of the pandemic and the action protocols at all times. The situation is dynamic and changes day by day, with very different realities in each region of the globe. “Although the pandemic is under control in Europe, the situation is different in other areas of the world, developing every day and we are using every opportunity that is presented to us. We hope to share good news from Latin America soon"Says the Danish executive, who adds that"We have been seeing more and more countries and ports open up to crew turnover, but more is still needed to normalize the situation and allow those with extended contracts to return home”.

Essential but rejected

Bruus reveals that one of the main problems facing crew repatriation efforts has been the refusal by the authorities -in countries all over the world- to provide medical assistance to sailors or authorize their repatriation papers due to the health conditions, both physical and mental that they present. “We have had cases where a crew member suffered anxiety combined with depression. Our medical team advised that he receive psychological treatment, but due to local Covid-19 restrictions in the port where the ship was located, a medical visit could not be arranged. The local authorities did not allow the crew member to disembark at any of the ports of call of the vessel. Eventually, the ship was diverted to another country where, fortunately, the person was able to disembark and receive the necessary treatment.", relates the Danish human resources executive.

"As the IMO states in its call this month, nations must treat seafarers as essential workers. Our colleagues on the high seas are making sure supply chains keep working for the benefit of the global economy, international trade and jobs around the world. We really need to be there for them and also give them the support they need when they need it.", Maersk executive points out.

Support in the storm

There are approximately 400.000 crew members 'stranded' at sea. In June, some 100.000 were replaced, mainly in ports of countries where protocols are in place and which also have airports open and working. The remaining 300.000 to be repatriated are on board their respective ships. Bruus details that in the case of Maersk Line, the company has made additional resources available to crew members for their emotional well-being, with the support of professionals, as well as increased bandwidth, so that they can maintain contact with their families; access to psychological support for crew members and sailors and their families; increased budget for food and beverages; increase in the budget for welfare items. "It What really matters is that the crew members get home as soon as possible. We are doing everything we can to achieve this. They have done an excellent job during all this time”.

“We have failed our crew members”

From the other side of the path, ports are also aware of the importance of crew turnover. “We have failed our crew members by not having made visible the importance of their work to local governments”Says Juan Carlos Croston, VP Marketing & Corporate Affairs, Manzanillo International Terminals, in a sense mea culpa of the entire industry and that he shared in an exclusive conversation with MundoMaritimo.

The problem is that, despite facing a common problem, there is no dialogue focused on the crew. “There is no standardization of protocols, both maritime and sanitary ”reveals Croston, who stresses that it's the "technical part of how-to" where systems fail. “In some parts of the world they have managed to establish certain protocols for the replacement of crew members, as is the case of Singapore, which prepared a document and is applying it, together with some ports in Europe and the Caribbean. The issue is that we have not made the issue visible to those who make decisions in this regard”, adds the MIT-PAN executive, who is also president of the Caribbean Shipping Association.


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