The ongoing seafarer crisis: do charterers have hearts? (FORUM)

The ongoing seafarer crisis: do charterers have hearts? (FORUM)

Widely regarded as the senior statesman of world shipping journalism, Michael Grey* offers in our FORUM section, another impassioned commentary and an urgent suggestion for the intervention of BIMCO on seafarers so inhumanly treated during the mounting COVID crisis.

Do seafarers have souls? Are they sentient human beings, with natural rights, or, as the last mooring rope is slipped, do they become inanimate; items of ship’s equipment, like the oily water separator or the windlass? And while pondering these questions, which are really more practical than philosophical or theological, we might also ask whether charterers have hearts?

You have to wonder, as reports about how seafarers have been treated by their fellow human beings, since the Covid-19 plague provoked its panic-stricken response around the ports of the world. Nobody with an ounce of decency can fail to be enraged by the appalling plight of the bulker Anastasia, swinging around her anchor for nearly six months off the North China port of Caofeidan, along with another small fleet of laden tonnage waiting for berths.

The ship is operated by MSC, but Covid restrictions and general refusal by charterers to consider the need of the crew for relief have seen the adamantine hearts of the latter exposed to the worst possible degree. All sorts of solutions have been proposed – relieving the crew at the anchorage has been rejected, while the proposal to divert the ship to a Japanese port where the authorities are sympathetic, has been refused by the charterers. The operators, between a rock and a hard place, fear that the ship would be arrested if they attempted to order the master to seek succour elsewhere, with the crew merely becoming pawns for a whole lot longer.

Meanwhile the mainly Indian crew has sought the intervention of the Indian and Australian authorities, although neither government can be said to be enjoying cordial relations with that in Beijing. The ship was running out of fresh water but what was supplied was found to be effectively non-potable, after several of those who drank it became ill.

Who cares about this, apart from the crew and their relatives?  The institutions and agencies do their bit of course, but when it comes to rights, it seems that the inanimate rights of the charterers always trump everything else and protests fall on stony ground – that is ignored. It was notable that the Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organisation, no less, felt impelled over the festive season to provide some very firm words about the utterly disgraceful practice of charterers seeking to insert a “no crew reliefs” clause into sundry charter parties. You would like to think that this might make a difference, but it probably won’t stop the practice, as the blighters will merely find some other crafty way around the wording. Remember the rights of the charterer are sacrosanct, as established in umpteen cases of Admiralty law. So there is no point in working yourself into a rage about seafarers’ rights.

Another item that struck a chord for all the wrong reasons in the run-up to Christmas came from the little New Zealand port of Napier, where a general cargo ship suffered a serious hold fire lying alongside, and the crew required to be evacuated. The ship had been 17 days at sea, the crew apparently healthy, but you would think, from the rage stoked up by the local media, that they were importing bubonic plague, by affording refuge to this company of seafarers. Admittedly, New Zealand (largely because of its geography) has been astonishingly successful at managing the pandemic, but it hasn’t been any fun at all for the seafarers upon whom that small country totally depends for its imports and exports, during the duration.

Napier was one of my favourite ports on the Kiwi coast, a small seaside town where the natives, who would flock to the port to look at any ships in at the weekend, were the soul of hospitality. There were tennis courts and putting greens within a five minute walk of the ship, and some of the loveliest country you could imagine not far away. It somehow saddened me to read about the deterioration in human relations over the years as the seafarers that country depended upon became invisible, as they have done everywhere else.

If nothing else, does not this Covid crisis, now being employed as an excuse for some pretty nasty legislation and crazed schemes for “rewilding” and veganism, show up the need for a proper revisit of the relationship between owners and charterers, not to mention the collateral like the crew? It is time to look at whether ancient case law, constantly cited by learned lawyers, is appropriate to the style and practicality of modern shipping and maritime commerce. My suggestion is that there should be constituted a high-level Commission, presided over by BIMCO, which retains its reputation for fairness, impartiality but above all practical professionalism , but with representation from those with an interest in a fair and decent final outcome. And it would be awfully nice if, somewhere in the not too small print, it could recognise that seafarers have souls.

*Published with the kind permission of the Maritime Advocate Online.

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