Governments fail to protect seafarers’ rights, says UN agency

Landmark ruling from the International Labor Organization finds that governments have breached seafarers’ rights and failed to comply with several provisions of the Maritime Labor Convention during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Article I(2) on the duty to cooperate.

In a landmark ruling the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Committee of Experts has sent a strong message to governments that they have failed in their duty of care towards seafarers under international law during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the first ruling of its kind, the committee of 20 eminent jurists has found that governments have failed abjectly to protect the minimum standards for the protection of seafarers’ rights, as set out in international law under the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) 2006. This includes basic rights such as access to healthcare, repatriation, annual leave and shore leave.

The finding follows submissions made by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). 

Responding to the ruling, ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton and ICS Secretary General Guy Platten issued a joint statement:

Governments have been asked for months to address the crew change crisis, now they have been told that they must act to help the hundreds of thousands of seafarers still on-board ships due to the unlawful actions of member states.

This ruling clearly sets out that it is both legally and morally wrong for countries to continue to expect seafarers to work indefinitely, supplying the world with food, medicine and vital supplies, while depriving them of their fundamental rights as seafarers, as workers, and as humans. This landmark ruling is a clear vindication of what seafarers’ unions and shipowners have been saying for the past nine months.

This ruling makes clear that all governments have to follow international law and urgently recognize seafarers as key workers with practical effect. This means allowing seafarers to get off in ports for medical attention. It means enabling seafarers get to an airport to fly home when their contracts are finished.

And it means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships without having to battle a mountain of bureaucracy. To date, only 46 countries have classified seafarers as key workers, which is simply not good enough.

We welcome the intervention from the ILO Committee of Experts in spelling out how governments have failed in their obligations. The Committee is unequivocal in its critique on the lack of required cooperation by governments. It criticizes States for allowing the situation to persist for so long.

But it also explains how together we can fix this. This is one of the most direct and effective Experts’ observations we’ve seen. Once again, a roadmap has been laid out for how to resolve this humanitarian crisis and return to a normally functioning crew change system that the world’s supply chains can rely on. 

It’s up to governments to get on with implementing that roadmap and urgently prioritize seafarers as key workers for COVID-19 vaccines as a clear demonstration of compliance with this finding.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more