Saturday, 13 June 2020

Helping Seafarers: Singapore approves over 4,000 crew change cases for seafarers during COVID-19 period

87 ship crew members fly home to India from Singapore on chartered plane after being stranded at sea
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 13 Jun 2020

Chief engineer Awadhesh Prasad was looking forward to going home to India after his four-month contract with shipping company Executive Ship Management ended.

But the COVID-19 outbreak scuppered his plans as borders were closed, and he and the crew of Crimson Monarch could not disembark from the bulk carrier.

This meant that Mr Prasad, 54, could not return home to Ranchi, capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, in February as planned.

He ended up continuing on the ship's journey to Canada, Brazil and Australia, among other countries, for about four more months, before his employer found him a way back on a chartered flight.

The bulk carrier has not docked at any port since May 9, when it left Brazil.

"Finally, today, I can go home," he told The Straits Times at Changi Airport Terminal 1's departure hall yesterday.

Mr Prasad was one of 87 ship crew members who boarded a chartered flight to Mumbai yesterday after he disembarked from the Crimson Monarch to a smaller vessel, which took him to Marina South Pier.

The chartered plane had flown 54 crew members from Mumbai to Singapore to replace the departing crew on six ships for their onward journey from the Port of Singapore.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said yesterday that it has approved more than 4,000 cases of crew sign-on and sign-off for over 300 companies and 500 ships since March 27.

Signing-on and signing-off refer to the ship's handover process, when one crew replaces another.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan raised the issue of seafarers being stranded due to COVID-19 restrictions worldwide on his Facebook page on Tuesday, in response to a Financial Times article.

"Many crew have worked several months beyond their contracts due to recent travel restrictions which bar crew from disembarking to return home," said Mr Khaw.

"This has led to the international shipping industry threatening to cease sailing unless replacement crew can be brought in."

He said this issue could potentially disrupt or clog the global supply chain, given that commercial vessels carry 80 per cent of world trade.

Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min said in a Facebook post yesterday that Singapore has been facilitating crew change with a new protocol outlined in the Singapore Crew Change Guidebook.

The guide was developed by the Singapore Shipping Association and the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union, with MPA's support.

MPA chief executive Quah Ley Hoon said: "We have seen a sharp increase in the daily crew change applications since our last Port Marine Circular (on May 22).

"Singapore has a responsibility to facilitate crew change in a safe manner for both the country and the ships, given the ongoing pandemic.

"The (guidebook) sets out a 'safe corridor' which companies can now use consistently and reliably for crew changes."

Getting a flight into India, which has banned air travel, was not easy, said Executive Ship Management managing director S.P. Singh.

"International flights are banned in India... In order to charter a plane, we had to go through a long process to get the relevant permission. The Singapore authorities had been very cooperative."

The back-up plan was to wait for governments to reinstate international flights, which Mr Singh felt was not a viable option.

"The seafarers were having a tough time, not seeing their families," Mr Singh said, adding that the crew's family members in India had been asking the company when their loved ones could come home.

Mr Prasad said he called his wife and daughter, who is in university, every few days to check in.

"They are very understanding of the situation because it is all reported in the news. They kept asking me to take care," he said.

The crew could use high-speed Internet connection to call home, but it was the uncertainty of securing a way home before the pandemic ended that frustrated him.

"It was very difficult, not knowing when I could go home... I was worried for my family," he said.


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