Transport Canada has warned shipowners that it plans to enforce the Maritime Labor Convention’s provisions on crew change, particularly the requirement that all crewmembers must have a valid seafarer employment agreement (SEA).
As the COVID-19 crew change crisis drags on, hundreds of thousands of seafarers are serving on board beyond their original contract end date – including many who have turned down contract renewal and are working on expired contracts, according to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).
The Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) normally entitles seafarers to repatriation at the shipowner’s expense at the end of a contract, and it limits the total term of service to a maximum of 11 months. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led port states around the world to impose strict limits on cross-border movement, including crew changes. Even where movements are permitted, new control measures like pre-travel COVID testing, shoreside quarantine periods and charter flights have dramatically raised the costs of crew change. Given the expense and logistical challenge involved, ITF has reported difficulties in securing repatriation for seafarers trapped on board past their contracts.
Australian regulators have highlighted similar issues. In November, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said that the agency does not see keeping seafarers on board ships for longer than 11 months as a sustainable business practice going forward. Australia plans to enforce the MLC limit as written beginning on February 28, 2021. “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,” AMSA general manager Allan Schwartz said.
Transport Canada does not plan to enforce the 11-month limit quite as strictly as AMSA, but it is cautioning shipowners that they need to have a reason and a plan for seafarers who have been on board beyond that timeline. To avoid dentention or penalties, all possible efforts must have been made to repatriate seafarers serving beyond 11 months; there must be unforeseen events that have made it impossible to perform a crew change for them; the seafarers must freely accept an extension beyond the 11-month limit; and there must be a flag-approved plan for repatriating them as soon as possible. In addition, the shipowner must show its actions to protect these seafarers’ mental health and fight fatigue.
Canada plans to show less flexibility when it comes to employment contracts. Each seafarer must have an employment agreement, and “foreign vessels in Canadian waters operating without a valid SEA for all crew members will be subject to enforcement action,” including detention or a fine. An expired, non-renewed contract is often perceived by unions and regulators as a signal of non-voluntary employment.
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