UN should probe why governments failed to fulfill obligations to seafarers during pandemic

Shipowners and seafarers’ representatives have asked the United Nations to establish an interagency task force to examine the implementation and practical application of the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) 2006 during the pandemic, including its impact on seafarers’ fundamental rights and on the shipping industry.

The crew change crisis peaked at over 400,000 seafarers trapped on ships working beyond their contracts because of local Covid restrictions and the failure of governments to cooperate and coordinate to address the crisis.

The number of seafarers still stranded is around 200,000 and is on the rise again as authorities respond to new variants and explosions in cases like the devastating second wave currently tearing through India. While some governments have responded well, designating seafarers as key workers and facilitating their travel, too many are sitting idly by while ship’s crews are unable to get home in a situation that is tantamount to forced labor. Urgent action is needed.

The call for a UN investigation came in a resolution adopted at the 4th session of the ILO Special Tripartite Committee (STC) of the Maritime Labor Convention, held virtually between 19-23 April 2021, where ITF representatives, shipowners and governments met to keep the Convention under review.

“The Maritime Labor Convention is an international treaty designed to protect seafarers and contribute to the provision of decent work,” said Mark Dickinson, Seafarers spokesperson at the International Labor Organization and Vice-Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section.

“The governance and structure of the industry was brutally exposed during the pandemic. The industry is fragmented despite the requirements of the UN Law of the Sea and this massively contributed to the chaos.

“The major flag states are paper tigers – zero visibility, zero ability, zero interest in the welfare of their crews.

“Furthermore, the 97 governments who have ratified the MLC have a duty to make sure crew can get home at the end of their contracts. It’s there in black and white. There are no get-out clauses or special conditions. Governments who failed to ensure seafarers are repatriated or prevented crew from getting home, denied them medical care ashore, and who failed to cooperate internationally to guarantee seafarers their rights are in clear breach of the MLC and thus their international obligations.”

Travel bans ill thought through

The STC meeting noted that, in spite of the pandemic, seafarers have continued to keep supply lines open, ensuring that essential food, fuel, medicines and medical equipment can get to where they’re needed. However, governments have had 13 months to get their acts together and still too many impose ill-thought-through travel bans that are preventing seafarers’ ability to sign on and off of ships.

“If seafarers are designated as key workers globally and allowed to move freely, it will go a long way to resolving this huge human rights problem,” said Fabrizio Barcellona, ITF Seafarers’ Section Coordinator. “There are a range of measure that authorities must put in place to stop the disease spreading to protect seafarers and port communities including testing and prioritizing vaccines for seafarers and dock workers.”

The meeting also recommended better co-operation between nations, temporary waivers to allow travel and international recognition of crew documents. All these things would help the crew crisis without significantly impacting governments’ ability to control Covid-19.

“Many seafarers have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and as a consequence of the way governments are handling the crisis many more are reconsidering their choice of career,” said Dickinson. “That’s had an impact on the shipping business with some companies unable to continue operating owing to crew shortages. That’s affecting the whole world economy. Governments must act urgently to prevent the situation becoming even worse.”

Vaccine priority

The meeting also agreed in a separate resolution that transport workers should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccination, backing ITF’s public call for governments to stop ignoring WHO advice and prioritize vaccines on humanitarian and economic grounds.

The resolution sets out how governments should make vaccinations available for seafarers and recognize other countries’ vaccinations. It suggests setting up hubs in key ports for the vaccination of ships’ crews.

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