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A seafarer on board a cargo ship.
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Jamaica has come to the rescue of many international seafarers by amending its laws and putting the necessary measures in place to facilitate the repatriation of seamen and women who have been trapped at sea due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is widely accepted that seafarers are the backbone of the global supply chain, as they man the ships that transport necessary supplies, such as crude oil, food, medicines and motor vehicles across the world on a daily basis.

Almost everything that is needed through the global supply chain is moved across borders by vessels that are crewed by more than 1.6 million seafarers worldwide.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) which is the United Nations (UN) specialised agency for world maritime affairs, reports that “the COVID-19 pandemic has put seafarers around the world in precarious situations”.

“As of December 2020, it is estimated that 400,000 seafarers are currently stranded on ships beyond the end of their original contracts and unable to be repatriated, due to COVID-related travel restrictions,” the IMO notes.

Director of Legal Affairs at the Maritime Authority of Jamaica (MAJ), Bertrand Smith, explains to JIS News how the Government responded to the IMO’s call to assist with the crisis, which has been unfolding over the past year.

Mr. Smith says that a seafarer’s contract lasts for an average of about four months by law.

“Every four months the crew has to change, and based on the Convention that we have signed, called the Maritime Labour Convention, which was incorporated into our Shipping Act at the end of last year December, seafarers have their right to repatriation at the end of their contracts,” he adds.

Mr. Smith points out that when the contracts have ended, the seafarers are entitled to go home, and a replacement crew is sent to join the ship to continue the voyage.

This process, however, has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic with the closure of several borders, rendering many seafarers trapped at sea beyond their contract periods.

The Legal Affairs Director explains that they could not be repatriated and that the replacement crews were not able to join ships and that this would stymie cross-border trade: “So it became critical in terms of suspending or stopping global trade, and so the IMO and some other industry groups, like the International Chamber of Shipping, pleaded with governments to at least open their borders to seafarers who are non-nationals”.

The plea from the IMO, Mr. Smith says, was to designate seafarers as essential service providers and also to allow them to enter and leave the country for the purpose of joining ships to relieve colleagues and for repatriation of those that were stranded, respectively.

In June of 2020, Jamaica passed the relevant Disaster Risk Management Order, which designated seafarers as essential workers and created a regime to facilitate approved seafarers transiting Jamaica for the purpose of joining a ship or leaving a ship.

“The Order basically requires the MAJ to verify that these are seafarers, so we receive their documents, receive proof that they are issued with a certificate of competency and proof that they are actually joining a ship in Jamaica. Once we verify that these persons who are going to enter Jamaica are seafarers, there is another set of documents which the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) vets,” Mr. Smith explains.

“These are their temperature logs, COVID-19 tests, and we require that the ship that the person is going to – in the case of somebody coming into the country – has evidence of a COVID-prevention plan,” the Legal Affairs Director says.

This, he adds, is done to ensure that the seafarer will not be going into an environment that may result in transmission of COVID-19.

Mr. Smith points out that the MAJ deals with the approval of the seafarers’ documentation and the MOHW deals with the health-related documents to ensure that the seafarer does not transmit COVID-19 when he or she is coming into the country to join a ship.

He states that the protocol also requires that the motor vehicle that the seafarer is going to enter to be transported to the ship must follow some specific COVID-19 protocols, and the responsibility for that lies with the ship’s agent.

“For someone who is coming on a ship who wants to go home, there is a similar protocol whereby we have to verify that the ship has a COVID-19-prevention plan, that there are no cases on board, and then we allow the seafarer to come into the country to go to the airport,” the Legal Affairs Director notes.

The entire process has resulted in inter-agency collaboration, with the MAJ as the lead agency working with the MOHW, the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) and the Shipping Association of Jamaica (SAJ).

Mr. Smith points out that Jamaica is one of the few countries facilitating foreign crew members to transit the country for the purpose of joining and leaving ships.

The MAJ, in expectation of large numbers of seafarers taking advantage of the opportunity and transiting through Jamaica, invested in an electronic platform that facilitates the submission of applications by crewing agencies and ship management companies.

The applications may be submitted at any time, from anywhere in the world through what has been named the Disaster Risk Management Portal.

“At any time of day or night from anywhere in the world, they can submit their application with proof that the person is an approved seafarer, along with his health-related documents,” Mr. Smith explains.

He adds that when the documents are received by the MAJ, they are processed in conjunction with the MOHW and a certificate is issued for the seafarer to land. It is presented to the MOHW and PICA and that allows them to be facilitated through the airport.

The Legal Affairs Director points out that this was a special “carve-out” for seafarers to allow them to enter the country without doing a quarantine period, because of the very short time that the person would have to join the ship.

They are treated in much the same way as airline crew through the airport, where they are not expected to join the regular passenger lines.

Addressing the recent launch of Jamaica’s bid for a seat on the 40-member IMO Council, Prime Minister, the Most. Hon Andrew Holness, said that Jamaica is proud to be among the first IMO Member States to have responded positively to the call for action by the United Nations and its agencies.

“We did so in law by including a specific and unique scheme to facilitate seafarers’ transit through our air[ports] and seaports. So far, through a successful inter-agency effort, Jamaica has facilitated repatriation and crew changes for over 3,700 seafarers,” the Prime Minister noted.

He said the Government’s actions are in solidarity with this year’s IMO theme ‘Seafarers: At the Core of Shipping’s Future’.

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