Cargo owners must step up to ensure seafarers’ human rights

Seafarers’ unions say the world’s biggest brands have no excuse not to audit their supply chains and issue directives to suppliers on crew change, now that a new human rights due diligence toolkit has been launched.

The toolkit helps cargo owners and charterers ask the right questions of suppliers and business partners in their supply chains to ensure seafarers’ human and labor rights are being upheld, including to crew change, freedom of movement and freedom from forced labor.

The kit has been developed by UN bodies led by the UN Global Compact, some of the world’s largest corporates, and maritime industry social partners – including the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

“For far too long, shipping has been a human rights blind spot for global brands. Responsible companies in today’s world want to understand how they or partners in their supply chains might be violating human rights. That’s why in the midst of the crew change crisis, the launch of this tool couldn’t be more timely,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton.

Cotton said upholding human rights within supply chains is a social responsibility of companies, and was increasingly a legal requirement for them.

“Throughout the pandemic, the world’s seafarers have been set adrift, stranded by Covid-19 restrictions with hundreds of thousands forced to work against their will. Responsible players in the supply chain have acted, but many companies, whose goods haven’t stopped moving, have either been caught unaware or have chosen to ignore this humanitarian crisis.”

The UN bodies are encouraging companies, also known as ‘cargo owners’, to work with maritime industry experts within the ITF or the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) to undertake ‘supply chain health checks’. These health checks will assist companies to understand their human rights due diligence (HRDD) obligations and address violations in their supply chains.

Brands can ban “no crew change” clauses from supply chains

ITF is still being alerted to charterers and sub-charters using “no crew change” clauses and other more sophisticated means to avoid performing crew changes, said David Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section. Cargo owners needed to set out their expectations to maritime transport suppliers, he said.

“Sadly, money is still getting in the way of human needs when it comes to shipping. Many shipowners’ revenues are at all-time highs, and cargo-owners have barely noticed any change to their business as usual, despite 200,000 seafarers still trapped working aboard what amount to floating prisons, unable to get home.

“We want to see as many companies as possible taking concrete action, committing to use the due diligence tool, and helping to stamp out human rights abuses in their supply chains and the wider shipping industry. We’re standing by to help them do that.” 

Heindel said brands had the power to ban “no crew change” clauses from their supply chains. 

“With the launch of this tool, companies now have no excuse not to act. This tool sets out the questions companies need to be asking those shipping their goods. It makes clear the directives companies can give to suppliers to allow diversions, and to ensure that “no crew change” clauses are eradicated from their supply chains,” said Heindel.

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