What is the Crew Change Crisis?


The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic brought about a crisis, which caused thousands of laborers aboard ships to become stuck. They could not leave their boats, while other sailors could not come aboard the ships they were supposed to work on. Over 400 thousand people were stuck in one way or another at the peak of this crisis, and even in May 2021, there were 200 thousand people still unable to be repatriated. Even today, this problem has not been fully resolved, and many people are still unable to leave their ships.

Why is this crisis significant?

Over 90% of all world trade is done by ships. Almost all raw materials and finished goods are shipped by sea. Over 1.6 million people are working on boats today, and they run the world economy by transporting oil, lumber, food, and other vital resources. Most seafarers are from China, Indonesia, Russia, and others.

Why did this happen?

After the pandemic, most countries limited all travel to keep their population from contracting the virus. To this end, they restricted all access to the ports and airports for citizens of other countries. Because of this, loading and unloading goods was possible, but the ships’ crews had to stay onboard. This caused them to overwork and remain aboard the boat longer than their contract allowed. Usually, they never stay aboard a ship for over six months, and international conventions prohibit visiting for over 11 months.


Why is it a human rights issue?

Crew changes are crucial because people cannot be stuck on a ship for long. It isn’t good for their mental and physical health. Also, the crew at sea will often work 10-12 hours and seven days per week without rest.

Sailors stuck aboard their ships report having such adverse effects as anxiety and stress, both mental and physical. The most painful thing is homesickness. Some people were trapped aboard their ships for over a year, which is unacceptable. This is a violation of human rights. IHRB has said that crew change is one of the most important things to do in 2021, as it is one of the most extreme human rights issues.

What are the challenges involved in resolving the crisis?

Arranging a crew change in the current situation with coronavirus is a challenge. Alternative transportation must be found to move the crew off the ship. Visas must be made, and flights via unrestricted airlines must be organized. Since the coronavirus restrictions have caused many airlines to be limited, this will also be more difficult to do, and most require people to be vaccinated or tested for coronavirus.

Ships may even have to deviate from their courses to help the sailors get home. This costs time and money, and many documents must be signed. This is why crew change has become so much of a challenge.

What are governments doing?

Maritime Labour Convention says it is illegal to make people stay aboard for over 11 months, and reminding governments of this is the primary way of solving the crew change problem. Processes of exchanging crews have already been put in effect this way, but many more people remain stuck aboard their ships, being unable to land or return home.

The UN Secretary-General has alerted governments that these seafarers are vital workers – the world economy relies on them to stay supplied with resources and goods. Seafarers require medical care and protection of their human rights. The Secretary-General called governments to make exclusions for seafarers to ensure ship crew changes. Sailors must be given priority since they are vital workers and must be given ways to get home. Also, the UN agencies have stated that seafarers must be prioritized for vaccination so they will no longer be at risk of coronavirus infection.

What about businesses?

Many organizations, including the International Human Rights organization, have been pushing businesses to do more to alleviate the crisis and help the crews of their ships get to safety. Companies that hire people are directly responsible for ensuring their rights are respected. Businesses that run maritime industries can and should ensure that their workers are cared for.

There are limitations, of course. There are crew change laws implemented that limit crew changes. A crew change cannot occur while the cargo is aboard the ship. These laws can restrict sailors’ rights and lessen their protection. Some businesses do this, even though it is unlawful.

Therefore, companies and organizations interested in protecting the rights of sailors and seafarers must take action and alert governments to these problems with human rights.