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Asian ports tighten quarantine, leaving sailors stuck at sea

Crew members unable to switch shifts in Manila and Singapore

Some ships have been forced to deviate from their planned routes to change crews.

TOKYO/MANILA -- Quarantine requirements and other precautions aimed at keeping the coronavirus out of ports have left maritime transport companies struggling to relieve exhausted crew members.

Crew members on 12 large freight vessels have been unable to disembark at Manila's port. The Philippine government has ordered that immigration procedures for the sailors be prioritized, and has designated seven cruise ships for use as quarantine facilities, but authorities remain swamped.

The maritime shipping industry has about 250,000 Filipino sailors, accounting for more than 20% of the global total, more than any other country. Many Asian shippers rely on them due to their English-language skills and relatively low cost, which means that being able to change crews in Manila is critical.

The crews of major Japanese shipping companies are 60% to 70% Filipino. "We can do only around 50% of our normal crew changes," a Nippon Yusen representative said, adding that the company is struggling with the renewed restrictions.

Big Taiwanese shippers, which also depend on sailors from the Philippines as well as such countries as Vietnam, are in a similarly tight spot. Shipments have been picking up since June, but the rules have made it difficult to add more crew, one company said.

With fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections mounting, Asian port authorities that had eased regulations aimed at curbing the virus are clamping down again.

Filipino crew members operate a Nippon Yusen vessel while observing social distancing guidelines.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore in late July informed shippers that crew members signing on will be required to quarantine in their own countries for two weeks before leaving for Singapore. In Hong Kong, disembarking sailors must first provide proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test result.

Seafarers normally serve on ships on contracts lasting from six months to about a year, but a growing number have been stuck at sea for longer due to lockdowns. Japan's Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha has 2,000 crew members working past their contract terms.

This can be dangerous. Prolonged tours at sea "cause increased exhaustion and stress," an industry source said. Human error is implicated in 70% of accidents at sea.

Yang Ming Marine Transport of Taiwan says it has changed shipping routes and adjusted schedules to enable sailors to return home. Ocean Network Express, a container shipping joint venture created by Japan's three marine transporters, notes an increase in "cases of ad hoc port calls for crew changes."

But such unscheduled trips require consuming more fuel, along with the other costs involved in spending more days at sea. With many airlines having cut back service, some big shipping companies are turning to charter flights to send sailors elsewhere, but this is an expensive option as well.

"Charter flights and other measures to transfer crew will generate 2 billion yen [$19 million] ... in additional costs in the fiscal year ending March 2021," Toru Maruyama, an executive officer at Nippon Yusen, said Wednesday.

Medical and quarantine-related expenses will drive up costs as well, said Royce Choo of Singapore-based container freight company Samudera Shipping Line.

Meanwhile, the sailors who were meant to relieve crews are stuck ashore with no pay coming in.

Jeric Maravilla, a Filipino chief officer who had been slated to sign on to a ship in March, is still waiting for a crew change. "We don't really have any source of income," he said. "I have two children -- one is already going to school and one is still a baby -- and many other expenses."

The International Transport Workers' Federation, or ITF, estimates there are 300,000 seafarers in the same predicament -- unemployed and facing "financial ruin."

Shipping companies are being forced to take action. Nippon Yusen will start offering assistance to foreign sailors next month, working with local partners to provide loans and insurance benefits.

Freight traffic is recovering from its coronavirus-induced slump and is certain to surge in the coming months in the run-up to the year-end shopping season in the U.S. But as the virus continues to spread, port restrictions look unlikely to be lifted.

"There are concerns that shipping schedules will be delayed, affecting freight deliveries," said a source at a major Japanese shipper. And the lockdowns could also push already rising freight rates even higher.

Additional reporting by Yu Nakamura in Taipei and Mayuko Tani in Singapore

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