The pandemic has thrown a wrench into all our plans. However, for some crew, it’s forced them to have to make some life choices — do I leave my home country and possibly not be able to return home as travel restriction prove to be increasingly difficult, or do I just ride it out at home until things loosen up? For those away from home, the struggle to return looms and becomes increasingly uncertain.
Due to travel restrictions and the difficulty associated with getting New Zealand, Australian, and South African crew in and out of their home countries, these crew are often not being considered for job vacancies. This is also an issue for crew departing a vessel for leave and then being unable to return, which disrupts the vessel’s rotation and the carefully planned leave schedules for the remaining crew.
The Quarantine Conundrum
A recent spike in cases has led to areas of New Zealand to be at Alert Level 3 and 4 and Australian states under stay at home orders. Even before the current lockdowns, crew have the additional challenge of securing a two-week hotel quarantine and covering the high costs, not to mention the additional two week’s leave required away from the vessel just to get home.
Taking all this into account, Australian and New Zealand crew who are contracted under a rotational structure have proven to be an additional pressure on the budget, says Lisa Ricourt, Recruitment Specialist/Business Development at Hill Robinson, based in their Gold Coast, Australia, office.
“Currently, we have some vessels who are very generously covering the hotel quarantine costs for their Australian and Kiwi crew, and it is common that the time the crewmember is in quarantine is considered ‘dead days,’ meaning the crewmember does not earn leave during this time nor use up any of their leave,” says Monique Dykstra, director of Saltwater Recruitment. “However, a lot of vessels are not open to covering these costs or providing the extra time off required.”
The borders of New Zealand have been closed and only returning Kiwis can enter with a hotel quarantine voucher that has to be pre-booked before their flights, she says, as a Kiwi looking to return home herself. Kiwis around the world are vying for the rooms in managed isolation to return to their country and there aren’t any exemptions for seafarers. And due to the lockdown, the release and re-release of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) rooms in NZ have been paused.
“However, a lot of vessels are not open to covering these costs or providing the extra time off required.”
The NZ Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment said earlier in August that the website received nearly 20,000 unique users, and at the peak in March 2021, there were only 245 rooms available on average each day, New Zealand Herald reports.
This means that when bookings were available, and whenever they do resume, it is highly competitive. “Kiwis are going to great lengths — downloading apps, paying for bots, coders, and $2,500 booking assistants to assist them in getting the first spots that become available,” Dykstra says. “When a spot on the NZ MIQ site becomes available, it is snapped up within a split second. It is taking a toll on a lot of Kiwi seafarer’s mental health.”
All crew who have an Seafarers Employment Agreement, along with proof of the Seaman’s Discharge Book and an exemption application, have been able to fly out, “all whilst going through a great deal of scrutiny in doing so,” says Ricourt. “When one leaves, they depart the country with the hope that they will be able to get onto a flight to return at their chosen time; however, this is not a ‘given.’”
Effect on Crew Jobs
For Australians, the government announced in early August that if you are Australian, have arrived in Australia, and then choose to depart again, you will not necessarily be allowed to return. This places those affected at a crossroads of leaving and staying out until the rules change, which is likely to be next year at the earliest, or returning home and staying.
The government also halved the maximum number of people allowed to arrive in Australia on commercial flights to just over 3,000 per week, and this full reduction has now been extended until the end of October 2021. Ricourt says, at these caps, airlines are typically restricted to flying around 9 to 10 passengers per international flight into Melbourne and about 25 per flight into Sydney.
“With regards to any non-Australian crew that we need to get on our yachts that are based in Australia, that’s impossible,” says Lucy Medd, Fleet Crew Manager at Burgess. “We have been replacing the crew. So the current crew are at home on extended vacation, and we are looking for local crew, which there are a few more available than usual to be honest because a lot of the Australian crew have decided to stay in Australia until this pandemic is over.”
Another factor that has affected crewing for yachts in Australia is that Australian-flagged vessels that are commercially registered must hold Australian Maritime Safety Authority licenses, or the license holder holds a minimum of a Certificate of Recognition, which is an additional cost for each crewmember.
As a result of these restrictions and situations, some crew have been let go as they can’t return to the boat in time, and some owners or managers have a new policy stating they do not cover the additional costs of hotel quarantines. While the recent riots in South Africa closed the embassies, it meant crew couldn’t get visas. “And that essentially means we have lost about a third of our crew resource through people not being able to freely travel as a seafarer, which is incredibly frustrating from a crewing perspective,” Medd says.
Early on during the pandemic, Burgess was getting phone calls from captains and pursers saying they were trying to get a crewmember home but didn’t know how. They were able to assist by contacting the embassies, but now, crewmembers wait on the computer to book a bed in the quarantine hotel if anything is available.
The situation has only become worse. “Sadly, it has become almost impossible to get crew into Australia and New Zealand."
Since the opening and then closing of the Trans-Tasman bubble, there have been no available beds to book between now and the end of November. Dykstra says that before this, a couple dates popped up now and then, making it possible to get a spot if you checked frequently. But since the bubble’s closing and the ending of the grace period for those returning from New South Wales, Australia, there’s been a backlog of those seeking reservations.
The situation has only become worse. “Sadly, it has become almost impossible to get crew into Australia and New Zealand,” Medd says. “Last week [third week of August], the earliest flights in Australia were the third week of December, so I imagine it will now be January (with the occasional cancellation).” It continues to be frustrating for the crew, and she says they have Australians asking for their place of repatriation to be somewhere other than Australia, but they must be legally allowed to be in that place.
“For those actively seeking work, it may not always be possible, but if you can, relocate yourself to a country that has less restrictions and is close to the action,” Dykstra says. “For example, I had a Kiwi chief stewardess looking for work from NZ for months, and as soon as she relocated herself to Europe, she was snapped up within days. For Kiwis, be prepared that you may not be able to make it home this year and be prepared for making alternative arrangements for your next leave.”
Dykstra shares that Kiwis who are struggling with this situation can lodge an official complaint to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment to have their voices heard: here. She also mentions there have been a number of those associated with the industry in NZ who are “leading the charge on a massive complaints uproar to different government bodies in NZ,” claiming that the government is in breach of MLC as seafarers are unable to be repatriated to their home.
One of those people is Master Mariner Kevin Judkins, who has spent 44 years at sea mostly on oil tankers, who has been contacting government officials and organizations to try to initiate some change in the current MIQ system and help seafarers get home. Two stranded colleagues recently reached out to him, and his advice to them and those signing off from a vessel is to remain in the country where you sign off. “Insist to the agent that the visa in your passport is stamped as ‘seafarers transit visa.’ Most countries issue this type of visa for seafarers signing off a vessel, valid for either forty-eight or seventy-two hours, to enable them to get out of the country for repatriation,” he wrote.
By remaining in the country with only the seafarers transit visa, then you can’t legally stay there, exponentially improving your chances of being issued a 2c emergency allocation by MIQ NZ staff. The 2c states, “New Zealand citizens or residents, who are unable to legally remain in their current location and have no other option but to return to New Zealand.” He cautions when dealing with MBIE MIQ, make no mention of having elsewhere to go as it disqualifies you from the exemption, whether it be a dual citizenship or being able to return to the vessel to wait.
Judkins also sends daily email updates regarding the situation and his efforts. If you’d like to get in touch with him, receive updates, or be part of the efforts, you can email him: click here.