Expansion of aid measures
The reduction of social security contributions for employees of companies belonging to the merchant navy, towage and dredging industries is based on activities as carried out in 2004. However, times and technology have moved on.
Recent years have seen the development of various activities linked to offshore windfarm construction. The building and maintenance of such windfarms requires special vessels designed to lay cables and pipes, dump rocks in the sea and perform heavy lifting at sea. These operations are strongly associated with ocean-going shipping and they are full-fledged shipping operations. Nevertheless, said activities do not create any entitlement to the reduction of social security contributions, although they are highly innovative on an international market characterised by intense competition. They moreover generate major economic growth and employment. If our companies are to remain in the vanguard of installation and maintenance work at sea, extending the reduction of social security contributions to this subsector is very much advisable.
Following in the footsteps of Malta, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, Flanders has applied for EU approval to extend the scope of the aid measures to the above-mentioned activities. EU Commission approval was granted on 26 April 2020, clearing the way to the extension of the aid measures. The Flemish Government Order of 12 June 2020 expanded and approved the exemption from some employer social security contributions for companies belonging to the merchant navy and the maritime towage industry.
2020 was a difficult year for the crews of ocean-going vessels.
Suddenly, crew experienced almost insuperable difficulties in embarking or disembarking. Seafarers having returned home after a sea voyage found it impossible to re-embark. The authorities no longer allowed crew changes and seafarers were no longer able to reach their destination as flights were being cancelled everywhere. Shipowners were unable to provide employment to seafarers.
A situation of force majeure had therefore arisen for shipowners. Employees from mainstream industries are entitled to temporary unemployment benefits due to force majeure. However, no such special regime exists in the social security system for seafarers.
In cooperation with the social security department, the social partners developed a (temporary) system entitling seafarers registered with the Pool to receive temporary unemployment benefits due to force majeure given the exceptional circumstances. Social security reform was put on the back burner because of the coronavirus crisis.
The Corona Strategy Group was set up to combine all possible problems and to put forward proposals for general guidelines and solutions. The following issues have been discussed:
- the validity of personal certificates and ship sanitation certificates “Joint Statement IMO-WHO-ILO on medical certificates of seafarers, ship sanitation certificates and medical care of seafarers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic”
- medical assistance to seafarers IMO circular: “Recommendations for port and coastal States on the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care ashore during the COVID-19 pandemic”
- COVID-19 prevention guidelines “Promoting public health measures in response to COVID-19 on cargo ships and fishing vessels”.
- contamination prevention guidelines on board
- seafarer mental health
- visa issues
- advice on COVID testing
- advice on the use of face masks by port employees (pilots, etc.) “COVID-19 related guidelines for ensuring a safe shipboard interface between ship and shore-based personnel”.
At the time of writing this chapter, the work of this group is still ongoing.
One of the pandemic’s main consequences was the impossibility to change crews. Often national authorities banned crew changes altogether. Even when disembarkation was permitted, seafarers could not go home because air traffic was grounded, and no flights were available. At the height of the crew change crisis, four hundred thousand crew worldwide were left stranded on their ship.
The crew change task force forum was initially created to discuss the practical situation in countries and/or ports. Rules governing crew changes and shore leave changed all the time (sometimes even daily) and shipowners found it almost impossible to keep track of these ever-changing rules.
It was understood by all stakeholders that crew changes would remain difficult for a long time to come. Hence the importance of drawing up protocols for ensuring safe and uniform crew changes. The guidelines were developed in record time. The entire crew change process was described stage by stage, from the seafarer’s departure from home to his or her embarkation or vice versa. The guidelines include, among others, recommendations for the use of PCR tests, quarantine, safe travel from and to the airport and from and to the ship.
The protocols resulted in an IMO-circular (Recommended Framework of Protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic). They also contributed to the fact that governments finally often allowed crew changes subject to strict guidelines.
The Belgian authorities have always recognised the importance of shipping to the world economy. Shipping accounts for over 90 per cent of international transport and it is vital to the supply of raw materials, ancillary materials, pharmaceuticals, and finished products. Without ocean-going transport, the entire world economy would grind to a standstill.
Crew changes are therefore essential. In Belgium, crew changes have never been banned. Seafarers who cannot disembark become exhausted and more prone to errors.
Additionally, the entire crisis has had an enormous impact on their physical and mental health. Crew hear frightening stories about the gravity of the pandemic, a relative of theirs is extremely ill and they do not know when they will see their family again.
When crew changes fail to materialise or are subject to lengthy postponements (a case in point is the situation of a crew member who had embarked for a six-week voyage, but who only returned home after seven months), while seafarer freedom of movement is severely restricted (shore leave is often denied), crew members also significantly suffer psychologically. Seafarers have no social safety net on board. Shipowners have designated external organisations offering psychological counselling to seafarers on a 24/7 basis when the going gets rough.
As early as 23 March 2020, the Belgian authorities designated seafarers as key workers, i.e., personnel performing essential services, also in line with IMO and EU recommendations. Crew changes can take place in Belgian ports, subject to safety regulations. Having been recognised as key workers, seafarers can keep travelling, any travel ban notwithstanding.
The DG for Shipping has always shown a great interest in the fate of the shipping industry.
As early as 31 March 2020, the DG for Shipping issued circular 2020/002, providing for several operational measures with respect to certificates. All certificates no longer need to be available on paper and surveys can be performed remotely. Surveys which need to be performed onsite may be temporarily postponed. Moreover, the validity of COC’s, medical certificates and STCW certificates has been extended.
In August 2020, the DG for Shipping issued a second, important circular: circular 2020/005 on extending seafarer employment contracts. Because seafarers were often unable to sign off at the end of their contract, seafarer employment contracts had to be extended, often beyond the 6-month limit applicable to Belgian seafarer employment contracts and sometimes even beyond the 11-month MLC term limit.
If a seafarer employment contract is extended beyond the 6-month maximum, the shipowner will have to advise the DG of Shipping of such extension. In this notification, the shipowner will have to demonstrate that he has indeed exhausted all options to disembark the seafarer, but that this has proved to be impossible in practice. At the same time, the shipowner will have to present an action plan leading to the disembarkation of the seafarer concerned.
The notifications made show that the Belgian shipowners have spared no effort to make crew changes happen. Often, they have needed to deviate from their planned route, an awfully expensive solution with lots of additional costs: extra port fees, additional transport costs, employment contracts with extended duration and additional wages, additional crew travel costs as ports are harder to reach, …. As the availability of regular flights is extremely limited or non-existent, shipowners have been forced to use private flights as well. Obviously, this has caused enormous costs. We estimate that the crew change problems experienced by the Belgian shipowners have cost them up to € 30,000,000 over and above ordinary costs.
Understanding the efforts made by the Belgian shipowners, the DG for Shipping extended seafarer employment contracts.
Summary of Are You Waterproof events
THE BELGIAN FLEET
At the end of 2020 the fleet flying the Belgian flag numbered 244 vessels with a gross tonnage of 6.034 225.
The average age of the merchant vessels was 10,75 years, with a weighted average of 9,44 years.
|End of 2018||End of 2019||End of 2020|
|Tugs and offshore supply vessels||48||37.140||45||31.370||49||41.589|
|Floating building material||70||93.512||70||93.512||61||78.989|
|Total Gross Tonnage||246||6.364.985||247||6.546.538||244||6.034.225|
OWNERSHIP OF WORLDFLEET
|Country||National flag||%||Foreign flag||%||Total|
|7||Republic of Korea||14.403||17,87%||66.180||82,13%||80.583|