COVID-19 SPECIAL

Shipping industry focusing on smooth crew changes, safety to sail past crisis amid Covid-19 pandemic

Activity at Pasir Panjang Terminal last October. The total number of vessel arrivals has fallen 39.8 per cent to 6,701 in June from 11,138 a year ago, while container volumes have dropped by 1 per cent in the first six months of this year from a year
Activity at Pasir Panjang Terminal last October. The total number of vessel arrivals has fallen 39.8 per cent to 6,701 in June from 11,138 a year ago, while container volumes have dropped by 1 per cent in the first six months of this year from a year ago.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

One key concern is inability of crew members to disembark from vessels due to shut borders

The shipping business has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic despite the fact that maritime trade routes were largely kept open to maintain supply lines.

For the industry to sail past the crisis, jobs in the marine sector need to remain secure and crew changes need to take place smoothly despite closed borders, industry players said.

The number of vessels arriving here in June fell almost 40 per cent from a year ago, and the sector has several new issues to tackle.

One concern is ship crew replacement when workers' contracts expire but crew members cannot disembark from the vessels due to borders staying shut to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Jasmine Lam, who is director of the Maritime Energy and Sustainable Development Centre of Excellence, said that seafarers are sometimes given extended crew contracts despite being overdue to return home.

"Issues of seafarers' safety and well-being, such as fatigue, exist. These directly affect shipping safety," said Prof Lam, who is also director of the university's maritime studies programme.

An estimated 200,000 seafarers worldwide require immediate repatriation, Prof Lam said.

This global issue was highlighted in a Financial Times article earlier this year, which attracted responses from then Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and former Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min.

Locally, the Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) has spearheaded a working group to facilitate crew change in the Republic.

The group, which includes the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), among others, developed a guide to enable sign-on crew to start their employment and sign-off crew to return home.

The Republic facilitated an average of about 300 cases of crew change per day last month, according to an MPA statement on July 24.

  • 300

    Average number of cases of crew change per day that Singapore facilitated in July.

    95%

    Plunge in passenger ship arrivals in Singapore during April to June, compared with same period last year.

The Singapore Shipping Association will be conducting a study by the end of the year to "better understand the current and future manpower requirements from our members... to jointly develop plans to keep or create jobs for the maritime sector", its spokesman said. One possibility is a portal to pool and match maritime companies with prospective employees.

An SSA spokesman said in response to media queries that the association "will continue to work with all the authorities and industry stakeholders to put in place pragmatic processes for safe and regular crew change".

But it will require all hands on deck, especially after companies were found to have breached protocols of self-isolation, according to a report on TradeWinds, a global shipping news website, last month.

The spokesman said: "We will continue to emphasise to all stakeholders that it is the responsibility of all relevant parties to do their due diligence for safe and scheduled crew change to take place."

Ensuring the jobs of marine workers is another concern in the current economic climate.

The maritime industry contributes to about 7 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product and employs more than 170,000 workers, according to the Maritime Singapore website.

The total number of vessel arrivals has fallen 39.8 per cent to 6,701 in June from 11,138 a year ago.

Container volumes have dropped by 1 per cent in the first six months of this year from a year ago.

Prof Lam said: "The greatest impact is on passenger shipping, including cruise."

Passenger ship arrivals in Singapore have plunged by more than 95 per cent during April to June when compared with the same period last year, she added.

The SSA spokesman said: "With the global economy almost grinding to a halt, many companies are trying to reconcile their business operations and manpower strength."

 
 

The association will be conducting a study by the end of the year to "better understand the current and future manpower requirements from our members... to jointly develop plans to keep or create jobs for the maritime sector", he added.

One possibility is a portal to pool and match maritime companies with prospective employees, the spokesman said.

Prof Lam said: "As the maritime industry is one of the key sectors contributing to Singapore's economy, falling demand and revenue adversely affect Singapore."

"Financial performance of firms in the maritime industry is inevitably affected. These firms have to lower costs and many do not have new hires at the moment," she added.

MPA rolled out the MaritimeSG Together Package - amounting to about $27 million - that took effect on May 1. It is meant to provide financial support for companies, as well as training and employment support for Singaporean seafarers.

 
 
 

It comes on top of relief measures announced by the Government in four supplementary Budgets.

The Singapore Organisation of Seamen also worked with MPA to provide the Seafarers Relief Package, which provides $800 a month to eligible Singaporean seafarers.

PSA International chief executive Tan Chong Meng said during the DBS Asian Insights Conference last month that one of the early steps that PSA took was to assure workers that "retrenchments (were) not on our minds".

 

The company, which operates in 16 countries, is taking steps to fill gaps between "sea and rail" and "sea and road" that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed, he added.

"Logistics, as a whole, is like a team sport with many parts - very fragmented... we have a responsibility then to try and connect them better," he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2020, with the headline 'Shipping industry focusing on smooth crew changes, safety to sail past crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe