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A renewed push for crew changes and seafarers’ rights

Seafarers have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world came to a halt, they continued to transport essential goods, food and medicine across the globe. But hundreds of thousands of seafarers have become effectively trapped on their ships, as travel restrictions meant they were unable to return home, and relief crews were unable to join ships.

In the past year, significant progress has been accomplished to alleviate this humanitarian crisis, but new waves of infection in various parts of the world, the emergence of variants and the challenges surrounding vaccination mean the issue is far from over.

IMO’s Frederick Kenney, Chair of the Seafarer Crisis Action team, provides an update.

1. A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, what is the situation regarding crew changes?

We are seeing some improvements, but this is still very much a crisis that is impacting hundreds of thousands of seafarers on all continents. According to analysis from the industry, the number of seafarers stranded on ships and requiring repatriation has gone down, from a peak of around 400,000 in September 2020, to about 200,000 in May 2021. And we must not forget the equivalent number of seafarers who are stranded at home without pay, unable to join ships to relieve these exhausted crews and earn a living. Even though this reduction in the number of stranded seafarers is good news, the situation remains fragile and the number of stranded seafarers could rise again if no further action is taken by governments. With new waves of the virus in some countries and the rise of variants in different parts of the world, new restrictions are being imposed, and this is significantly impacting the capacity to conduct crew changes. This is why the key worker designation for seafarers is so important, to enable seafarers to travel freely between their home countries and the ships that are their workplaces. So far, around 60 Member States and Associate Members have responded to our call, and we urge more countries to follow suit because that designation remains vital to resolve the crew change crisis.

2. Is the vaccination rollout making a difference?

Vaccination of seafarers is a very important issue that will be fundamental to resolve the crew change crisis. The very nature of international shipping makes it necessary for significant numbers of seafarers to travel across borders. They often have to travel by plane to and from ships, as their ports of departure or arrival may be thousands of kilometres away from their home countries. And even though this is contrary to WHO guidance, they may be required to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination to be allowed entry in some countries. Vaccination will enable them to travel safely and continue to play their critical role for the global supply chain. We must keep in mind that over 80% of the world’s trade is transported by sea. That is the food, energy, essential goods and medicines, including vaccines, which are essential for all of us. This is why IMO, alongside other UN organisations, is calling on governments to prioritise seafarers in their national COVID-19 vaccination programmes, together with other essential workers. Vaccinating seafarers will present logistical challenges, not least because they generally spend months at sea away from their home countries, and this is why international cooperation will be essential on this issue.

3. Why are so many seafarers still stranded at sea?

Different countries are at different stages of the pandemic: while some are emerging from lockdowns and have vaccinated a significant proportion of their population, others are facing new waves of infection and tightening travel restrictions. Seafarers often have to transit through several countries, facing numerous COVID and quarantine requirements along the way. The current context makes it complex and logistically challenging to organise

crew changes. Any changes to national restrictions can disrupt travel arrangements from ships to home and vice-versa. This means that tighter restrictions in one part of the world can lead to a domino effect and have a global impact.

4. What are the impacts of the crisis on seafarers and on shipping?

The crisis is forcing hundreds of thousands of seafarers to continue working long shifts, seven days a week, well beyond the original end of their contracts and often with no end in sight. This is obviously having a major impact on their physical and mental health. Since the beginning of the pandemic, seafarers from around the world have expressed their exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety, mental stress and even suicidal thoughts. This is a humanitarian crisis which is also having repercussions on the safety of shipping, because a physically and mentally fatigued seafarer has a much higher risk of being involved in a marine casualty. Furthermore, there have been several cases of seafarers being denied permission to go ashore to receive medical care, despite presenting urgent conditions such as a stroke. Additionally, many seafarers have serious problems in obtaining repeat prescriptions for medication they take.

5. What has IMO done to help resolve the crisis, and what were the results?

IMO has established the Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT), which directly helps individual seafarers in particularly urgent situations. This dedicated team has been working around the clock, bringing cases to the attention of national governments, NGOs, trade unions or relevant associations, applying diplomatic pressure when appropriate, and orienting seafarers towards the right organisation. The SCAT is also working in close collaboration with other organizations, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). Our collective efforts have directly helped hundreds of stranded seafarers return home and get access to urgent medical care. Secondly, IMO’s representatives have held bilateral high-level meetings to encourage States to designate seafarers as key workers, recognising that it is governments who have the power to lift travel restrictions for seafarers. The Organization has also adopted a number of resolutions and endorsed protocols outlining clear steps on how to allow crew changes safely. Finally, IMO’s media campaigns have highlighted seafarers’ voices, put the global spotlight on the crew change crisis and demonstrated the importance of seafarers for the world’s economy.

6. What are the main lessons from the past year?

The most important lesson for all of us is to recognise the importance of seafarers for the daily lives of people around the world. They are one million men and women, who were almost invisible prior to this crisis, but play a key role by transporting 80% of global trade. This is why seafarers are at the heart of our World Maritime Theme for 2021: “Seafarers at the core of shipping’s future”. This crisis has also highlighted the importance of collaboration between all stakeholders. My colleagues and I have participated in weekly meetings with industry representatives, unions and other organisations, to monitor the situation and find common solutions such as the industry protocols for safe crew changes. Cooperation in the maritime sector to organise crew changes has been remarkable, and we can only hope that this spirit of collaboration will endure after the pandemic.

Seafarers’ rights in international law

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) stipulates that seafarers have a right to be repatriated at the end of their contracts. Flag States and Port States both have a responsibility towards this right. Under the MLC, the maximum continuous period a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 Months. The MLC and IMO’s STCW Convention regulate hours of work and rest. Seafarers’ rights to shore leave and access to medical care on shore are also protected under international law.

SCAT: A dedicated team supporting seafarers

IMO’s Seafarer Crisis Action Team was formed rapidly in response to the crew change crisis. In the past year, this small team of IMO officials has received hundreds of messages from seafarers desperate to go home. Their mandate includes bringing particularly urgent cases to the attention of the relevant local authorities, unions and associations; applying diplomatic pressure when appropriate; and advocating for solutions to the crew change crisis. So far, their swift action, in collaboration with other UN agencies, unions and the industry, has helped hundreds of seafarers return home or access urgent medical treatment.

Seafarers’ rights in Seafarers and COVID-19 - international law regional webinars

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) IMO has held a series of regional webinars of the International Labour Organization to address the challenges faced by (ILO) stipulates that seafarers have a seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic: right to be repatriated at the end of their • Latin America (March 2021) contracts. Flag States and Port States both have a responsibility towards this • Arab States and Mediterranean right. Under the MLC, the maximum (December 2020) continuous period a seafarer should • West and Central Africa serve on board a vessel without leave is (November 2020) 11 Months. The MLC and IMO’s STCW • Western Asia and Eastern Europe Convention regulate hours of work and (November 2020) rest. Seafarers’ rights to shore leave and access to medical care on shore are • Asia (November 2020) also protected under international law. • Eastern and Southern Africa (October 2020) The virtual events identify best practices, covering issues including medical guidance, disembarkation of seafarers for medical care, vaccination, digitalization, mental health, and effects of COVID-19 on crew changes and repatriation. Participants included IMO Member States, representatives of government sectors and agencies, such as port authorities, customs, immigration, ministries of health, foreign affairs, and aviation and others involved in crew change, repatriation and related key issues.

COVID 19 Information Resources

For the latest information, including guidance and statements, please see the COVID-19 resources page on the IMO website: https://www.imo.org/en and click on the red banner.