AMSA: Serving on ships beyond 11 months won’t be permitted from February 2021

The interim COVID arrangements which have permitted seafarers to serve longer than 11 months on-board ships will end from February 28, 2021, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.

Under the Maritime Labour Convention, the normal maximum period that a seafarer can serve aboard a vessel without leave is 11 months. Due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions and border closures, AMSA has allowed for interim exemptions from this rule to keep the trade moving.

“During the past six months, AMSA has monitored the level of compliance and intervened to ensure the repatriation of seafarers whose duration on board were excessive,” the authority said.

“AMSA has now issued a new marine notice, Marine Notice 10/2020, stating a return to international requirements, of no more than 11 continuous months on board, will be applied from 28 February 2021.”

AMSA has banned at least four ships this year for serious breaches of the Maritime Labour Convention, including underpaying crews.

General Manager of Operations Allan Schwartz said that while flexibility on the part of regulators was necessary when the COVID-19 pandemic began, keeping seafarers on board ships for longer than 11 months is not sustainable going forward.

Due to the crew change crisis resulting from the inability of seafarers to repatriate because of travel restrictions, it is estimated that around 400,000 seafarers are stranded at sea.

“In our view there has been sufficient time for ship operators to adjust to the COVID-19 world and develop new plans for seafarer repatriation and crew changes,” Schwartz said.

“Seafarers have shouldered a heavy burden during the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining global trade and our keeping our economies moving by delivering the vital supplies that we all need. But it has come at a personal cost to the seafarers who have spent longer on board ships, unable to take shore leave due to mandatory quarantine and separated from their friends and families.‘

The decision is being announced as findings from a new report conducted by the World Maritime University (WMU) point to ‘systemic failures in the implementation of the regulatory regime for seafarers’ hours of work and rest, undermining the credibility of international regulations relating to working hours. ‘

Titled ‘A culture of adjustment’, the research indicates that recording malpractices are widespread, questioning the capacity of the current regulatory framework to prevent fatigue and mitigate its effects.

The analysis argues that insufficient manning is the root cause of violations, especially during peak workload conditions.

“The fear of the negative consequences of failing inspections and creating problems for shipping companies outweighs the obligation to genuinely comply with international regulations. Employment insecurity accompanied by financial incentives contributes to an environment where adjustment instead of accuracy is the logical outcome. For seafarers, the sole objective of recording hours is to confirm compliance and avoid disruptions to the schedule,” Seafarers’ Trust said pointing to the research findings.

The authors of the report point to a lack of verification of the records and as such the effectiveness of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, if seafarers, shipping companies, and even maritime organizations are aware of the ‘adjustment practice’.

According to the report, due to these revelations, three significant areas need to be addressed urgently:

The first is the need for collaboration on a research-based model for determining safe manning for all operational conditions
The second is a review of the effectiveness of the ISM code
The third is to consider the ‘chronic mistrust between shore and ship personnel combined with the job insecurity characteristic of numerous seafarers’ working contracts’.
“It seems that all stakeholders are aware of the problems but lack the authority or willingness to address the root causes. This report throws down the gauntlet to the states that have ratified the conventions in good faith and must now acknowledge that significant change in ensuring effective implementation of the instruments is needed to retain their credibility,” Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of the WMU,  said.

Despite calls from industry bodies, including the IMO, to national governments to designate seafarers as key workers to facilitate their repatriation in line with the protocols developed by the industry, the cry for help remains unanswered.

Certain flag states like Singapore have been more proactive than others, however, shipowners have been faced with increasing costs to relieve their overworked crews as they had to divert their ships to locations where crew changes were allowed.

At the moment, the IMO is working on a list of all ports where crew changes are possible in line with crew change regulations in individual countries.