More governments should recognise seafarers as essential workers, expedite Covid-19 vaccinations for them and relax travel restrictions, according to Cargill Ocean Transportation president Jan Dieleman.

With the ever-evolving travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, industry estimates suggest 200,000 seafarers are still caught up in the crew crisis and unable to get home.

“Crew changes are getting easier … But it's not just about getting the crew off the ship,” said Dieleman, who oversees the trading giant’s chartered fleet of some 600 bulkers and tankers.

“It's getting the crew back home. And that has been very difficult for a long period of time.”

Cargill is on the steering committee for the Neptune Declaration, which calls on governments to grant the status of key workers to seafarers and offer them better protection against Covid-19.

Those with such a status can often have quicker vaccination and face fewer travel restrictions.

While dozens of countries have been willing to do so, Dieleman believes governments can do more to ease the crisis.

“The workforce at sea is quite concentrated in a few supplying nations,” he said. “What we have seen in the Covid-19 [pandemic] is that governments tend to look at their own citizens first.

“This is the time to once and for all get this sorted, and make sure that they get much higher in the pecking order.”

More than 310 shipowners, charterers and other shipping stakeholders have signed the Neptune Declaration, and promise to collaborate on changing crews to ensure minimal delays and costs.

Last year, bulker owners’ trade group Intercargo complained that some charterers were preventing crew changes from taking place during their contract periods even when shipowners agreed to swallow the associated costs.

Dieleman refrained from criticising such charterers.

“There is a commercial side ... Every charterer has its own right because there are legal responsibilities in some of these contracts,” he said.

“The approach that we've been taking is wherever we could, we've actually — within reason — been trying to accommodate these requests. And we've had many deviations.

“We've probably come out of this with stronger relationships with owners.”