As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, new challenges and variants of concern like Omicron threaten to worsen the plight of the world’s seafarers, who play a vital role in global trade.
Four United Nations organizations issued a joint statement on 28 February calling for continued global collaboration to address the crew change crisis that at times during the COVID-19 pandemic has left more than 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), UNCTAD and the World Health Organization (WHO) urge governments, the shipping industry and other stakeholders to scale up efforts to safeguard seafarer health and safety and avoid supply chain disruptions during the ongoing pandemic.
The organizations note that as COVID-19 travel restrictions eased and vaccination rates increased among maritime personnel, the humanitarian crisis at sea showed signs of improvement before the Omicron variant appeared.
According to the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator, which is based on data from 10 major ship managers employing some 90,000 seafarers, the percentage of seafarers on board vessels beyond their contracts decreased from 9% in July 2021 to 3.7% in December 2021.
But the share bounced back up to 4.2% by mid-January 2022. Following Omicron’s designation as a “variant of concern” (VOC), many countries quickly reimposed measures such as travel bans that have affected the world’s seafarers, most of whom are from developing countries.
The UN organizations are concerned the positive trends observed before Omicron could be further reversed. “While the number of seafarers that remain stranded has decreased, it remains considerable and further efforts must be made to rectify the situation and alleviate the continuing crisis,” the statement says.
Critical for global trade
Over 80% of the volume of global trade in goods is carried by sea. And throughout the pandemic, the world’s 1.9 million seafarers have played a vital role in keeping ships moving and ensuring critical goods such as food, medical equipment and vaccines are delivered.
But restrictions to fight the spread of the pandemic have meant many seafarers couldn’t leave ships. They remained stranded at sea far beyond the expiration of their work contracts and often beyond the default 11-month maximum period of continuous service on board, as required by the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006, as amended.
Likewise, some seafarers have been unable to join ships to replace stranded crews, leading to a significant loss of income and resulting in hardship for them and their families.
While on board ships, seafarers have also faced many other challenges that put them at increased risk or under increased stress.
For example, they have often lacked access to testing and the personal protective equipment needed to keep them safe while working in a setting in which it’s often difficult to respect social distancing recommendations.
In December, UNCTAD published a policy brief underscoring the need for stronger international cooperation to keep seafarers safe and global supply chains open amid the evolving pandemic.
It highlighted that action to protect the rights and welfare of maritime shipping crew and their families would help support the economies of seafarers’ home countries and maintain the smooth flow of world trade. Such support would also help advance progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth.
Calls to action
Recognizing the critical role of the maritime sector in keeping trade flowing during the global fight against COVID-19, the four UN organizations call on governments, national and local authorities, and all relevant stakeholders, including employers, to take the following 10 critical actions.
- Provide seafarers with immediate access to medical care as well as facilitate their medical evacuation when the required medical care cannot be provided on board.
- Designate seafarers as “key workers”, providing an essential service, to facilitate maritime crew changes and safe movement across borders, and recognize relevant documentation for this purpose.
- Prioritize the vaccination of seafarers, as far as practicable, in national COVID-19 vaccination programmes and exempt them from any national policy requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination as the only mandatory condition for entry, in accordance with WHO recommendations.
- Provide or administer COVID-19 tests and appropriate PPE to seafarers, including PCR tests where necessary, to facilitate the identification of cases on board or at the port, and to facilitate the movement of seafarers, including shore leave and crew changes.
- Ensure the consistent application of internationally agreed protocols and standards, including those for seafarers’ travel and vaccination documents, coordinate appropriately, and take measures to avoid punitive measures, fines and excessive costs.
- Adopt the latest legal instruments, including the MLC, 2006 and the Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention (Revised), 2003, as amended (No. 185), and ensure their implementation.
- Implement the recently updated WHO sector-specific guidance for the management of COVID-19 on board cargo ships and fishing vessels, published in December 2021, which, among other issues, highlights the importance of non-medical interventions, such as the use of face masks irrespective of vaccination status.
- Provide, where relevant, public key certificates associated with any health proof to relevant trust networks, such as ICAO for international travel.
- Continue to collaborate to ensure that relevant guidance is regularly updated, in line with developments and evolving scientific insights; and mechanisms are in place to reduce and effectively respond to medical emergencies at sea.
- Undertake concerted collaborative efforts to keep seafarers safe and limit disruption to supply chains, as well as prevent the unchecked spread of emerging VOCs, which could prolong the pandemic and its wide-ranging socioeconomic consequences.