31 JULY 2021
India’s seafarers have long been a significant presence in the global fleet, but in the COVID-19 era they face new obstacles to employment. The Indian government’s primary vaccine, Covaxin, is not certified by the WHO and is therefore not accepted by some international vessel operators as a qualifying vaccination. In addition, the Chinese government has quietly enacted a ban on Indian seafarers, according to the All-India Seafarers Union.
India has an active pharmaceutical industry, and it has developed three of its own vaccines, Covaxin, Covishield and Corbevax. Covaxin, a two-shot vaccine manufactured by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, has been available under an emergency use authorization since January, but it is not yet approved by the World Health Organization. According to the union, certain shipping companies have denied permission to board to seafarers who have received Covaxin.
“We have taken up this issue with the government. Those who have taken two doses of [competing vaccine] Covishield are getting jobs on vessels in other countries,” said the union’s working president, Abhijeet Sangle. “But many who took Covaxin are being denied jobs in some countries in Europe, the U.S., Malaysia, Hong Kong and China.”
In addition, according to the union, China has enacted an unofficial berthing ban on vessels that have Indian crewmembers, vaccinated or not. Since March 21, the All-India Seafarers Union claims, Chinese authorities have been quietly asking shipowners not to send Indian seafarers if they wish for their vessels to call at Chinese ports. Capt. Sanjay Parashar, a member of India’s National Shipping Board, confirmed the astonishing claim in a statement to the Times of India.
“[China] has asked foreign shipping companies that they can lift or unload the cargo from China only if they agree to its terms, which is not to employ Indian crew on board their vessels,” Parashar said. “There is a commercial cost to it. Either you have to divert your ship which means adding to your fuel cost or replace the Indian crew, which too costs the company a lot.”
Capt. Rakesh Coelho, India branch manager for a prominent ship management company, confirmed to Times of India that some foreign shipping companies are taking more seafarers from the Philippines, China and Vietnam in response to the ban.
India is one of the biggest seafaring nations: it sends nearly 250,000 of its citizens to sea every year, and the majority of them work in foreign trade.