Crew Changes and Repatriation of Seafarers in Russia during COVID-19: Main Issues


Why are crew changes so important?

Working as a seafarer on a merchant vessel is perhaps one of the most stressful jobs there is. An average seafarer’s employment agreement lasts for 4-6 months, which means being on board almost all the time and working 10-12 hour shifts 7 days a week. Here are only a few reasons why seafarers quit their active sea jobs:

  • chronic lack of sleep and exhaustion;
  • unfriendly working environment;
  • excessively high levels of stress and anxiety;
  • loneliness and lack of adequate social life;
  • inability to spend enough time with family;
  • lack of adequate food and medical supplies on board;
  • short shore leaves;
  • excessive volume of paper work;
  • insufficient number of crew members on board;
  • risk of being taken hostage by pirates.

Continuous exposure to these factors of just one crew member can easily cause an incident (e.g. a collision, allision, or oil spill, etc.). Being at sea for too long without crew changes significantly increases the risk of such incidents occurring.

According to mandatory standards A2.4 and A2.5 of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) (to which Russia is a party), the maximum duration of service periods on board without a crew change may not exceed 12 months. At the same time, annual paid leave may not be less than 2.5 days per month of employment. Therefore, any seafarer employed for 11 months is entitled to at least 1 month of leave.

How are crew changes and repatriation regulated?

The same mandatory standard A2.5 of the MLC allows each seafarer to be repatriated (i.e. to return home) after their employment agreements expires while they are aboard, is terminated by the shipowner or by the seafarer for valid reasons, or if the seafarer can no longer perform their duties under the agreement due to the specific circumstances.

Because seafarers’ employments agreements frequently expire while the vessel is at sea, a seafarer may need to get off the ship at the nearest port of call to be repatriated as soon as possible. This inevitably involves crossing a border of a foreign country and requires the necessary visas and other immigration documents. Often, seafarers have to make a land transit through the territory of a foreign state to reach the closest convenient airport.

Repatriation is at no cost to the seafarer and is paid for by the shipowner. According to guideline B2.5 of the MLC, the shipowner covers at least:

  • passage to the destination selected for repatriation;
  • accommodation and food from the moment the seafarers leave the ship until they reach the repatriation destination;
  • pay and allowances from the moment the seafarers leave the ship until they reach the repatriation destination, if provided for by national laws or regulations or collective agreements;
  • transportation of 30 kg of the seafarers’ personal luggage to the repatriation destination;
  • medical treatment when necessary until the seafarers are medically fit to travel to the repatriation destination.

The cost of repatriation may not be imposed on the seafarer in any manner (e.g. by deducing it from the seafarers’ wages or other entitlements, by requiring advance payment of these costs at the beginning of employment, etc.). It should be noted that the MLC sets only the minimum obligations of the shipowner, and individual employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) can and often do contain terms more favourable to the seafarer.

If the shipowner is financially incapable of repatriating the seafarer or refuses to do so, the seafarer is entitled to repatriation organised and paid for by the flag state of the vessel they are employed on, if it fails to do so – by the state from which the seafarer is to be repatriated or the state of their nationality.

Although MLC guidelines are not strictly binding on state parties to the convention (by contrast to standards), many countries still incorporate these guidelines in their domestic law. Thus, in Russia guideline B2.5 of the MLC is reproduced in Art. 85 of the Merchant Shipping Code which deals with the shipowner’s duty to repatriate.

Further, rules on repatriation are also dealt with in the Order of the Foreign Ministry of 10 January 2016 № 1692. This instrument specifies procedures for repatriation of:

  • both Russian and foreign seafarers employed on Russian-flagged vessels if the shipowner fails to make arrangements for or meet the cost of repatriation, and
  • Russian seafarers employed on foreign-flagged vessels if neither the shipowner nor the flag state arrange or pay for their repatriation.

How are costs of repatriation financed?

Starting from 2017, all vessels flagged in states parties to the MLC or calling at ports located in states where the MLC is in force must carry certificates confirming the shipowner’s financial ability to pay repatriation costs, as well as any outstanding wages and other entitlements for a period of up to 4 months  – see standard A2.5.2 of the MLC. These certificates are usually issued to the shipowner by the P&I Club with which the ship is entered and which provides insurance cover for costs of repatriation.

Although most standard P&I rules cover repatriation costs in principle, coverage does not extend to cases when the seafarer is abandoned, i.e. the shipowner:

  • fails to cover the cost of the seafarer’s repatriation;
  • has left the seafarer without the necessary maintenance and support;
  • has otherwise unilaterally severed their ties with the seafarer including failure to pay contractual wages for a period of at least two months.

Such exclusions from coverage are meant to incentivize shipowners not to abandon their seafarers. Nonetheless, if the seafarer is actually abandoned, the P&I club still pays the repatriation costs directly to the seafarer and then recovers them from the insured shipowner by way of indemnity.

Why have crew changes and repatriation become more difficult during COVID-19?

As many other current problems in the shipping industry, difficulties with crew changes were not caused by the coronavirus itself but by government measures taken in response.

A lot of states closed their borders for entry and transit of foreigners (and sometimes even their own nationals), be it on land, through seaports or airports. Such prohibitions may make exceptions for so-called ‘key workers’ (e.g. airplane crews and medical staff), but not all countries extend these exclusions to seafarers.

Moreover, operation of many plane routes has been completely suspended. Even if there are available flights, airlines only fill them to a half of their capacity or less. Also, tickets on such flights may be quite expensive. Some states (e.g. India or the Philippines) book special charter flights to transport their seafarers to ports of departure and back home. However, the overall cost of organising such flights may be too prohibitive to use them on a large scale.

In order to reach their ships or convenient airports, crew members often need transit visas (e.g. to enter Schengen Area states). Due to COVID-19, most visa centres and consulates are either shut down or experience significant delays in issuing new visas or extending the existing ones.

When implementing strict quarantine measures, authorities of many countries (including Russia) do not make exceptions for seafarers signing off. As a result, seafarers are forced into lengthy stays in quarantine centres on shore even if they do not display any COVID-19 syndroms. In some instances, crew members are not even allowed on shore during mandatory quarantine periods.

All these measures make it much more difficult for departing crews to leave their ships and fly home once their employment agreements expire. Meanwhile, incoming crews cannot board their ships for the same reasons.

This leads to seafarers being trapped on their vessels for many months past the maximum allowable periods of service without a crew change.

Finally, some states do not allow seafarers infected by COVID-19 or requiring medical assistance for other reasons to get off to receive treatment on shore.

How big is the problem?

Every single day more than 1.5 million seafarers work on more than 60,000 commercial vessels across the globe. Around 80,000 to 100,000 of them are Russian nationals. Every year, Russia makes it to the top five countries supplying the most seafarers for the world’s merchant fleet.

As of mid-June 2020, more than 300,000 seafarers worldwide are in need of a relief crew. 150,000 of them will need to disembark and board a plane to get home, while the other 150,000 will have to make the same journey in the opposite direction. In addition, more than 70,000 crew and personnel on cruise ships require immediate repatriation. Although there are no statistics about the nationalities of these total 370,000 seafarers waiting for a crew change, a significant number of them are Russian.

According to data provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), at present, hundreds of thousands of seafarers have little choice but to stay on their ships even after the maximum allowable duration of service (11 months) and as long as 15 months in some cases.

What has Russia done and not done to help seafarers?

1) Exempted Russian and foreign seafarers from travel restrictions

On 18 March 2020, Russia temporarily restricted entry of foreign nationals into its territory (even those holding unexpired visas). However, as of mid-June, these restrictions do not extend to crews of inland and seagoing vessels. Nevertheless, foreign seafarers will still be required to present a valid ID and a valid visa, unless a treaty abolishing visa requirements applies.[1] The Ministry of the Interior has temporarily ceased accepting vis applications and issuing letters of invitation, although the inland and seagoing crews are exempt from this measure as well.[2]

From 30 March 2020, the Russian government imposed certain restrictions on outbound travel from the country. Despite this, from 16 April 2020,  the restrictions do not apply to either Russian[3] or foreign[4] seafarers traveling abroad to effect crew changes.

Unfortunately, these exceptions do little to change the procedures for obtaining transit visas which foreign seafarers must follow, and the time it takes to obtain a visa still depends to a great extent on the efforts of specific crewing agencies. For example, on 18 June 2020, the port of Kaliningrad saw the first ever change of foreign crew taking place in its territory – in that case, the crewing agency involved obtained the requisite visas in one day!

2) Renewed expiring domestic qualification documents and STCW certificates

 In mid-May 2020, the Russian government decided to extend by 6 months the duration of certificates required by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers 1978 (STCW), as well as other crew qualifications (e.g. professional diplomas, qualification certificates, etc.) if they have already expired or will expire by 20 June 2020.

The extension is automatic and applies to the seafarers who are unable to renew the validity of these documents following the ordinary procedures due to, for example, restrictions on disembarkation, boarding or transit imposed by Russia’s regional governments or by foreign states in response to COVID-19.[5]

Meanwhile, medical certificates which have already expired or will expire by 20 September 2020 are likewise automatically renewed for 6 months.[6]

3) Extended seafarers’ employment agreements

 In late March 2020, the Russian government allowed to extend the employment agreements of seafarers working on Russian-flagged vessels for 3 more months. However, this extension is not automatic and applies only if a crew change cannot be performed within 11 months (the maximum allowable duration of service on board under the MLC), the seafarer consents and the shipowner ensures the seafarer’s entitlement to adequate leave under standard A2.4 and his right to repatriation under standard A2.5 of the MLC.[7]

4) Partially exempted crews from quarantine measures?

 From 18 March 2020, Russia mandated a 14-day quarantine period for all persons entering the country, to be spent at home or in a quarantine centre.[8] However, several days later, crews of inland and seagoing vessels were exempted from these restrictions.[9]

Despite this, in late April, Rospotrebnadzor (the Russian consumer protection agency) issued another, quite contradictory clarification. On the one hand, Russian regional authorities were directed not to apply mandatory quarantine measures to seafarers after entry into Russia, during transit or at departure.[10]

On the other hand, departing crews were ordered to wear masks and maintain personal hygiene until embarkation. Furthermore, Russian regional authorities were allowed to prohibit seafarers from disembarking ‘if it is not allowed by the technical requirements in accordance with the restrictive measures introduced due to the spread of the novel coronavirus infection (COVID-19)’.

Finally, Russian seafarers who have called at foreign ports within 14 days prior to arrival in Russia and who will transit through ‘specially affected’ regions of Russia may not self-quarantine on board. Instead, they are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine following the rules prescribed by the regional authorities (which usually means quarantine centres for Russians not resident in that region, while local resident may self-quarantine at home). Unfortunately, the requirements are much stricter for foreign crew members – they are not allowed on shore at all and must self-quarantine on board.

According to recent reports, Rospotrebnadzor will issue new recommendations on crew changes allowing more lenient quarantine procedures by the end of June 2020.

4) Introduced crew change and repatriation protocols?

 In late May 2020, the Ministry of Transport and Rospotrebnadzor issued joint recommendations for shipping companies aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 on board and in ports.

Regrettably, crew change protocols recommended (Schedule I, Art. 13) are not particularly detailed. Before commencement of the voyage, the shipowner must ensure that each crew member is tested for respiratory infection syndroms (not specifically COVID-19). Seafarers are directed to fully comply with personal protection, respiratory hygiene and social distancing requirements. If there is evidence of infection on board, all crew members are prescribed to submit to COVID-19 testing, then all spaces occupied by infected persons must undergo disinfection.

Even less detailed are protocols for disembarkation and repatriation of crew members who contracted COVID-19 (Schedule I, Art. 12). The shipowners are recommended to ‘consider disembarking in areas where local permanent of temporary hospitals are sufficiently equipped to administer adequate medical treatment’. The shipowners should also notify local port authorities about the place to which the seafarer is being repatriated and the route which the seafarer is taking.

So far, Russia has had a mixed record responding to difficulties with crew changes and repatriation caused by COVID-19. On the one hand, it does treat seafarers as ‘key workers’ as regards certain travel restrictions and renewal of qualification. On the other, the Russian government is yet to develop adequate protocols to be followed during crew changes and repatriation procedures. Most importantly (and regrettably), it has not fully exempted either Russian or foreign seafarers from mandatory quarantine restrictions, even where the seafarer’s presence in the country would be short and merely transitory.

[1] Governmental Decree of 16.03.2020 N 635-р, Art. 2

[2] Ibid., Art. 4.

[3] Governmental Decree of 27.03.2020 N 763-р, Art. 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ministry of Transport, Information Letter of 15.05.2020 N ЮЦ-Д5-25/8839.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ministry of Transport, Information Letter of 23.03.2020 N ЮЦ-Д5-25/4825.

[8] Order of the Chief State Sanitary Physician of 18.03.2020 №7.

[9] Rospotrebnadzor, Letter of 23.03.2020 №02-4745-2020-32

[10] Rospotrebnadzor, Letter of 29.04.2020 №02/8280-2020-32.

Russian Maritime Law Association (RUMLA) will keep you informed about the legal implications of COVID-19 for the shipping industry in Russia and worldwide!