Seafarers crucial to safety and security of New Zealand

This year the theme for World Maritime Day is Seafarers: at the core of shipping’s future. Focussing on Seafarers is even more important given the current global context and the Director of Maritime New Zealand Kirstie Hewlett explains why.

We are a nation surrounded by water and reliant on maritime supply chains

As cases of COVID-19 progress at pace around the world, New Zealand continues to feel the effects of global disruption, including on our supply chain. Even before our borders closed in March 2020, ensuring we had uninterrupted access to global markets, especially European and Asian markets, was vital to enable us to trade and connect people.

Sea freight accounts for 99% of our imports and exports annually. Everything from bulk medical supplies, cars, manufacturing products, and food is imported daily into New Zealand by sea. Our export-led recovery relies on us moving most of our key exports like dairy, fruit, honey, meat, wood, and more, by sea as well.

The import and export of these goods allows New Zealand to trade and compete in global markets, generates jobs, improves our wellbeing, and helps us achieve our social goals. Maintaining these supply chains relies on seafarers, with a range of skills, who are able to fulfil their role safely.

Life as a seafarer has changed

The focus on seafarers comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on seafarers, with hundreds of thousands of men and women stranded on ships for months beyond their original contracts, and unable to be repatriated due to national travel restrictions.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the life of a seafarer has changed significantly. It is estimated that worldwide there are up to 400,000 seafarers at sea, including some who have spent up to 20 months on board without a break or the ability to take regular shore leave at ports around the world. Many are finding it difficult to get home from overseas ports.

A similar number of seafarers are unable to join ships and earn a living. This crew change crisis, which has been ongoing for nearly a year, is a humanitarian emergency that threatens the safety of shipping.

In New Zealand grocery shopping, going to church, or phoning your family are things taken for granted, but for seafarers at sea, they are a luxury. One ship captain was so desperate for his homesick crew to call home, the ship ran aground off the coast of Mauritius trying to get cellphone service.

Internationally New Zealand has responsibilities under the Maritime Labour Convention to ensure the safety and wellbeing of crew, both on-board foreign-flagged ships in New Zealand waters, and on New Zealand ships.

Part of how we carry out this role is MNZ inspections of vessels to ensure they comply with the Maritime Labour Convention, in particular, that seafarers are being paid what they are due, and are having safety and employment standards met.

New Zealand also remains one of a handful of countries which allows shore leave and for shipping lines to swap crews, known as a crew change, which allows people to go home and fresh crew to come in.

These activities are extremely tightly controlled under the requirements of the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act. For example, during a crew change, the crew member must depart from New Zealand as soon as practicable after the person boards the ship. New Zealand also allows ships with sick crew on board to get vital medical treatment and shelter in port until they’re in a safe position to continue to their next port.

Support for seafarers

The Seafarers Welfare Board has been around for nearly six decades and among other things, provides shopping services for crew, facilitates access to religious services and provides services like Wi-Fi units so crew can remain in contact with relatives back home. The Board also runs welfare centres for seafarers who are allowed to go ashore.

Given gaps in funding, and the current COVID context, the Government has provided funding to Maritime NZ to work with the Seafarers Welfare Board to provide them with additional capability and capacity to be able to provide more services to seafarers sustainably over time.

It will take time for the Board to change from a group of several charities working together, to a professional body with paid staff and a clear set of expectations to deliver on. However, even in the short term while this is happening the funding will help provide greater support to seafarers and allow the Seafarers Welfare Board to bring in additional staff and build a presence in more ports across New Zealand. Over time on-going funding is intended to be provided through the maritime levy.

Celebrating seafarers

As an International Maritime Organisation (IMO) member, Maritime NZ celebrates World Maritime Day annually on 30 September. This focuses attention on the importance of shipping safety, maritime security, the marine environment, and other noteworthy aspects of the IMO’s work.

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