Seafarers should be designated as keyworkers during future global pandemics, says UN

Designating transport workers, including seafarers, as keyworkers and ensuring such workers’ needs and challenges are voiced during a pandemic are among the recently published recommendations from a joint United Nations and industry sector action group.

The Joint Action Group was established in December 2021 to review the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world’s transport workers and the global supply chain. The Group included IMO, International Labor Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Chamber of shipping (ICS), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and air and road entities.

The recommendations of the Joint Action Group to review the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world’s transport workers and the global supply chain (JAG-TSC) aim to minimize adverse impacts on transport workers, their families and global trade and supply chains, while at the same time ensuring that public health needs are fully safeguarded and local communities are protected.

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim signed the recommendations document on 27 January 2022, along with the Heads of the other involved UN entities.

The 23 recommendations include, inter alia:

  • Setting up a rapid-response group for immediate activation in the event of WHO-declared Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
  • Engaging in effective social dialogue with global, regional and national transport employers and workers and their organizations in recognition that social dialogue is an effective means to improve the living and working conditions of mobile and cross-border transport workers and transport facilitation across international borders.
  • The United Nations system should convene a tripartite, international and inter-ministerial meeting to discuss transport, health and the common concerns and interests of the transport sector in order to identify the different approaches required to safeguard and respect the rights of workers and employers during PHEICs.

Amongst specific recommendations for IMO, ILO and ICAO:

  • Contributing to WHO guidance to mainstream the rights, needs and challenges of workers and employers in the transport sectors during PHEICs. 
  • Voicing and mainstreaming workers’ and industry’s needs and challenges by engaging in the development of a future WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, as well as potential amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) in line with the modalities of engagement for relevant stakeholders.

 Amongst specific recommendations for Governments:

  • Recognize the key role played by transport workers during PHEICs, in particular mobile and cross-border transport workers that serve the sustainment of essential supply chains, and, if not having already done so, designate them as “key workers”.

IMO action during the pandemic

The recommendations reflect IMO’s calls made during the COVID-19 pandemic to designate seafarers as key workers and joint calls to collaborate on seafarer issues. 

Furthermore, IMO’s Facilitation Committee has adopted amendments to the Facilitation Convention (which enter into force on 1 January 2024), to include provisions derived from lessons learned during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Contracting Governments and their relevant public authorities are required to allow ships and ports to remain fully operational during a PHEIC, in order to maintain complete functionality of global supply chains to the greatest extent possible. 

Public authorities are also required to designate port workers and ships’ crew as key workers (or equivalent), regardless of their nationality or the flag of their ship, when in their territory.

Photo credit: iStock/ Ranta Images

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