The shipping industry has a strong fetish for buzzwords. The latest to ring loud and clear is “crew change” — a slogan spawned by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent stranding at sea of thousands of seafarers. Interestingly, nowhere in ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended can one find the phrase “crew change”. Instead, MLC 2006 talks of repatriation (the word is mentioned 37 times in the main body). It even devotes one whole section to the subject (Regulation 2.5 – Repatriation).

Why am I pointing this out?

First, MLC 2006 identifies the various parties responsible for bringing home the stranded seafarers. As the Convention makes clear, a seafarer is entitled to repatriation under certain circumstances, including, undoubtedly, the present pandemic. It is a human right. Apparently, not many have bothered to read the pertinent provisions in MLC 2006. Hence, all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing we see all around.

Second, the use of the term “crew change” detracts from the most immediate, most important problem facing stranded seafarers: the extreme uncertainty of when they can return home. The situation is so dire that one Filipino, a cleaner serving on board the cruise ship Scarlet Lady owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, committed suicide in May this year. Many other seafarers are known to be suffering from depression.

Surely, this is a humanitarian issue more than it is a question of shipowners resuming business. Instead of calling for crew change, why not shout “Bring them home!” and focus the discussion on repatriation? The phrase ‘crew change’ is short and crisp as slogans should be, but it reminds me of a mother or a nurse changing a baby’s diaper. It sounds rather cold and mechanical — like that infamous buzzword ‘the human element’.

Ah, but I forget. Buzzwords are for business, not for bleeding hearts.

~ Barista Uno

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