The MV Tomini Destiny, a bulk carrier presently docked at the outer anchorage of Chattogram port, is supposed to offload 55,231 tonnes of Soybean seeds.
But the master and crew of the vessel from the Marshall Islands are refusing to allow stevedores on board to offload the goods, citing concerns about exposure to COVID-19.
The vessel's master also alleged that the Chattogram port lacks screening of stevedores for the novel coronavirus and adequate protection for the crew. Stevedores are workers employed at a port to load and unload ships.
The MV Tomini Destiny, with a crew of 22, reached Chattogram from the USA on March 29.
After a bulk carrier arrives in Bangladesh, local shipping agents – in coordination with Chattogram port and ship handling operators – appoint an operator to offload goods from the vessel. The operator then sends laborers to the vessel to unload the goods.
The Chattogram port has been unloading goods from vessels using this system even amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Rajonish Shah, the master of Tomini Destiny, has asked the authorities to unload the goods using floating cranes – a facility the Chattogram port presently does not have.
The master and crew of the vessel have approached the Indian government, complaining that they are under duress due to the "unsafe offloading operations" in the Chattogram port.
Quoting a letter received from the vessel's crew on March 31, the Human Rights at Sea said in a statement on Wednesday that the crew has written directly to the flag state administration, the Indian government and Indian Unions, complaining of the matter.
The Human Rights at Sea is a United Kingdom based human rights organization.
In the letter, the crew claimed the vessel's owners have threatened them with termination if the stevedores are not allowed onboard.
The owners and charterers are also allegedly pushing the crew to move ahead with vessel offload operations without sufficient safeguards in place for the crew, such as the unsafe offloading operations at Chattogram, a lack of COVID-19 screening of stevedores, and adequate protection for the crew, said the Human Rights at Sea statement.
The crew also claimed there is no screening for COVID-19 for the stevedores at Chattogram port, around 60 of whom would come on board the vessel, and stay for the period of discharge.
"We, the full complement of the Tomini Destiny, are under enormous pressure, fatigue and mental stress due to owners and charterers insisting to perform shipboard operations under duress," the letter read.
However, the local shipping agent said the demand of vessel master Rajonish Shah is baseless and unrealistic.
Speaking to The Business Standard, Chattogram Port Authority (CPA) Secretary Md Omar Faruk said, "On Thursday, goods were unloaded from 45 mother vessels, and no one had any complaints. But the master [of Tomini Destiny] is not allowing stevedores to board the vessel.
"We scan everyone by thermal scanners during entry to the port as per guidelines of the International Maritime Organisation and the World Health Organisation."
Faruk added, "The shipping operators are providing masks, hand sanitizers, and scanning for everyone. There is a medical team to scan the crew of vessels and staff of the port. There are also hand-washing facilities at the port gates."
When contacted, Midhul Kanti Das, chief executive officer of Safe Shipping Lines Ltd, the local shipping agent of the MV Tomini Destiny, said, "The demand of the crew is unrealistic and baseless.
"The master does not want to allow stevedores onboard to discharge goods for fear of coronavirus infection. If the stevedores cannot go on board the ship, how will the goods be unloaded? He does not want to follow others, who are currently discharging their goods at the port following the existing system."
He continued, "All other ships presently docked at the outer anchorage are unloading goods, but he [master of MV Tomini Destiny] said he would not allow stevedores on board. He wants floating cranes to unload goods to lighter vessels, but at present, there is no floating crane facility anywhere in Bangladesh.
"In the ship, the goods are worth Tk70 crore, and delaying the discharge is causing losses for the importers. So, we asked the master to come ashore for at least 10 days, and we will be able to unload all goods during that period. But he refused and began complaining to different platforms."
Addressing the issue, Ahsanul Haque Chowdhury, president of the Bangladesh Shipping Agents Association, said, "Everyone entering the port is being scanned by thermal scanners. The vessel [Tomini Destiny] is just making an issue out of it."
The Chattogram port has handled around 350 container and bulk vessels each of the first three months this year without any issues, said the port authorities.