The pandemic became a turning point in the socio and economic organisation of the world. Not surprisingly, it had and continues to have a considerable impact on maritime trade and its workforce.
It may seem long ago now that cases of the novel coronavirus spread like wildfire across the world from January 2020. As the speed of contamination and serious consequences to public health became apparent, states swiftly imposed lockdowns and closed their borders. Taken by surprise by the gravity of the situation, governments faced shortage of personal protective equipment, hospitals were overwhelmed and funerary unable to cope. Lockdowns went on for months as people took to windows and balconies to applaud medical professionals who were at the forefront of the global response to the new virus. As personal tragedies developed ashore, from China to Italy, there was a growing crisis emerging at sea.
The world first paid attention to the maritime crisis when, in February 2020, the Diamond Princess was finally allowed to dock in Japan with its 2,666 international passengers and 1,045 crew. It remained on quarantine for almost a month as an ever-growing number of passengers and seafarers succumbed to COVID-19. In a quick succession other cruise liners were turned away from ports in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Cruise ships, in midst of its winter season, became the first casualty of the pandemic at sea.
Likewise, merchant ships felt the magnitude of the pandemic. Supply chains came to a halt, restrictions on port access were enforced and maritime administrations were instructed to work remotely having a direct impact on inspection and certification. Seafarers quickly became the human face of this crisis. It is now widely reported that border closures and travel restrictions impinged on crew change. Thousands of seafarers were unable to join their ships and start onboard service while an equally astounding number were trapped on board, prevented from going home. UNCTAD estimates that at its peak there were 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea. They had to work beyond the legally agreed contract period of 11-month and notwithstanding their continuous service, they were prevented from taking shore leave and seeking medical assistance ashore due to containment measures. There were reports of deceased seafarers being denied repatriation.
Two years on from the onset of the pandemic, its consequences are still felt by seafarers as new variants emerge and governments impose measures to protect public health and keep low infection rates. Seafarers still have to navigate border closures, reduced air transport, quarantine regimes and now vaccine mandates. Containment measures continue to affect crew change and seafarers’ access to shore leave. These have a ripple effect on seafarers’ mental health, can lead to fatigue and ultimately compromise operational safety.
In light of the continued adverse impact of COVID-19 on seafarers’ welfare and the global trade, the Officers of the Special Tripartite Committee of the MLC issued a statement calling on members states to recognize the critical nature of maritime transport and the importance of treating seafarers with ‘dignity and respect to ensure that they can continue to provide their vital services to the world’.
The Officers of the STC reiterate their request to all ILO Member States to bring together the appropriate departments and agencies without delay to address the following:
• Recognize seafarers as key workers and treat them as such;
• Ensure that, as key workers, seafarers are granted exemptions from travel restrictions to enable them to join and leave their ships and return home as already explicitly contained in the MLC, 2006 obligations on repatriation and entitlement to leave, while complying with good practice in infection control and are given access to vaccinations, and follow up doses required, as a matter of priority. Members States are encouraged to review the protocols which have been recognised by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and made available online;
• Adopt the necessary measures to continue to facilitate crew changes, regardless of the nationality of ships calling in their ports. This should include creating sufficient structures that guarantee a safe flow of seafarers from ships to designated embarkation points and closer cooperation between different government agencies
• Continue to review their policies as flag States to prevent the extension of periods of service on board beyond their agreed tours of duty, which may result in increasing substantially the risk of stress and fatigue of seafarers, and fully exercise their responsibilities to mitigate the risks linked to fatigue and accidents by effectively policing ships and enforcing regulations, including provisions of the MLC, 2006;
• Ensure that robust action is taken to guarantee that seafarers are not blacklisted or stigmatized for refusing to extend their Seafarers’ Employment Agreements or for raising concerns and complaints under the provisions of the MLC, 2006;
• As flag States, consider limiting remote inspections to issue ship certificates to avoid an additional burden for seafarers assisting during such inspections and an increase in mental and physical fatigue;
• Allow seafarers to access port State medical facilities and receive medical attention on an equal basis as nationals and in line with the requirements set out in the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations and the MLC, 2006;
• As port States, facilitate seafarers’ shore leave in accordance with the existing national COVID-19 preventive measures in a safe and controlled manner and give full support to seafarer port-based welfare services, acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic clearly exacerbates the inherent stress, isolation and social pressures that seafarers experience and has adversely impacted the mental and physical well-being of seafarers and their families; and
• As labour supply countries, facilitate the prompt return home of those seafarers who have completed their contracts and allow seafarers to leave their home country to join their ships.
The Special Tripartite Committee’s intervention follows the publication of a ‘commentary’ by the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR). The CEACR report stressed that force majeure can no longer be invoked to evade full compliance with the MLC. The Committee stated:
54. The Committee is deeply concerned that violations of the Convention may further increase due to new restrictions adopted by governments to contain the variants of COVID-19. In this regard, the Committee notes with deep regret the existence of cases of denial of access to medical care ashore for seafarers, even in situations of the utmost urgency, as well as cases of consistent refusal to allow sick seafarers to disembark or to allow for the bodies of deceased seafarers to be removed from the vessels and for their repatriation.
55. Moreover, the Committee must again express its deep regret that a number of ratifying countries, continue to invoke force majeure as an overall reason to deny the right to shore leave and extend the duration of periods of service on board, beyond the agreed date and, in some cases, beyond the default maximum period of 11 months. These types of occurrences endanger not only the health and safety of the seafarers concerned but also the safety of navigation. In the same context, some labour-supplying countries have continued to refuse to accept the return of their national seafarers. As a result, these seafarers have been stranded without earnings, and with great uncertainty as to their return to their home country.
56. As stated in the 2020 general observation and given that almost two years have passed since the beginning of the pandemic, the Committee stresses that the notion of force majeure should not be regarded as a valid reason to deprive seafarers of their rights, as there are options available worldwide to comply with the provisions of the MLC, 2006.
Since the onset of the pandemic a number of international organisations and industry bodies have addressed or tried to address the challenges it posed to maritime trade and seafarers’ rights. On 27 March 2020 the IMO published a circular letter calling for the designation of seafarers as key workers. The latest circular shows that 64 countries have responded to the IMO appeal. At the ILO, in addition to the statements issued by the STC, the ILO Governing Body also published a resolution on maritime labour issues and COVID-19. In July 2021, the ILO and IMO released a joint statement on medical assistance and the vaccination of seafarers.
The plight of the seafarers achieved such a scale that initiatives were taken by organisations outside the niche maritime sector. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on international cooperation to address the challenges faced by seafarers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to support global supply chains. A partnership between UN specialised agencies including the IMO, ILO, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Global Compact devised a due diligence tool for the maritime industry.
SRI is continuing to follow the ramifications of the pandemic in the maritime industry and advocate for compliance and enforcement of the MLC.