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

news 06 May 2021

Shipowners and seafarers’ representatives have asked the United Nations to establish an interagency task force to examine the implementation and practical application of the 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 labour. 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 of the Maritime Labour Convention, held virtually between 19-23 April 2021, where ITF representatives, shipowners and governments met to keep the Convention under review [1,2].

“The Maritime Labour Convention is a international treaty designed to protect seafarers and contribute to the provision of decent work,” said Mark Dickinson, Seafarers spokesperson at the International Labour 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 prioritising 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 prioritised for Covid-19 vaccination[3], backing ITF’s public call last week for governments to stop ignoring WHO advice and prioritise vaccines on humanitarian and economic grounds.

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





* Article 94 is included in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). This is from the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, 1982, which governs how all activities in the oceans and seas should be carried out, and Article 94 of the Law of the Sea establishes the duties and obligations of a flag state with respect to labour conditions, crewing and social matters on ships that fly its flag.

In 2020, the three leading Flags of Convenience are Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands, who together represent a third of the value of the world fleet, and 42% of its carrying capacity.


[1] The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a UN specialised agency charged (among other things) with overseeing labour standards. The key international treaty relating to shipping and seafarers is the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), often referred to as the Seafarers Bill of Rights, designed to protect the minimum rights of seafarers. See more here.

[2] The fourth meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the MLC, 2006 – Part I (held virtually 19-23 April 2021) considered the impact of Covid-19 on the shipping sector and seafarers. The meeting concluded that the International Labour Organization should ask the United Nations Secretary-General to convene an inter-agency task force. See more here.

[3] An ILO resolution concerning COVID-19 vaccination for seafarers recommended that all governments should prioritise seafarers for vaccination


About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice for nearly 20 million working women and men in the transport industry across the world.