UN Agencies Renew Call to Support Seafarers During Pandemic

Four UN agencies are calling for stakeholders to limit the effects of the COVID-19 Omicron variant on crew, while also safeguarding the health and wellbeing of seafarers and avoiding supply chain disruptions. Image via the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

Four United Nations agencies on Feb. 28 issued a joint statement urging stakeholders to collaborate to prevent undue hardship to seafarers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a joint statement asking stakeholders to take action to support the world’s 1.9 million seafarers from being unduly impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions.

The statement came in the wake of the Omicron COVID-19 variant of concern (VOC), which has, once again, caused many countries to close their borders, curtail crew movements, require additional vaccinations and approved paperwork, and in some cases, deny seafarers access to appropriate medical care, according to the London-based IMO.

The UN agencies warn that the impact of these actions would not only cause undue hardship but could also create supply chain disruptions that would affect the global population.

“Throughout the pandemic, the world’s 1.9 million seafarers, many of whom are from developing countries, have played a vital role in ensuring the continuous flow of critical goods along supply chains, hence keeping the world’s shipping and trade moving,” the joint statement says in part.

“However, as a result of some of the international traffic-related measures that have been put in place to mitigate the health and health systems impacts of the spread of the virus, many seafarers are still unable to leave ships, remaining stranded at sea far beyond the expiration dates of their contracts and the default 11-month maximum period of continuous service on board, as required by the Maritime Labour Convention,” the statement continued.

“For the same reasons, some seafarers have been unable to join ships to replace stranded crews, leading to a significant loss of income and resulting in hardship for seafarers and their families,” the statement explains. “This humanitarian crew change crisis has resulted in significant mental strain, fatigue and consequently increased the risk of accidents, imperiling working conditions in the shipping sector.”

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, according to the statement’s signatories. Moreover, they say, the full impact of the Omicron variant and related response measures on crew changes isn’t yet clear and further significant virus variants could yet emerge.

The United Nations agencies are calling for common and proactive approaches to address evolving challenges to international shipping and its key workers, minimize adverse impacts on seafarers and their families, as well as on global trade, supply chains and sustainable development, while continuing to protect local communities.

The agencies reiterated 10 actions that can be taken, summarized below:

  1. Ensuring seafarers can access medical care and medical evacuation if needed.
  2. Granting seafarers “key worker” designation, removing barriers to crew change and safe movement across borders, and recognizing relevant documentation for this purpose.
  3. Prioritizing seafarer vaccination in national COVID-19 vaccination programs and exempting them proof of vaccination as the only mandatory condition for entry, in accordance with WHO recommendations.
  4. Providing access to COVID-19 tests and appropriate personal protective equipment.
  5. Ensuring consistent application of internationally agreed protocols and standards and avoiding punitive measures, fines and excessive costs.
  6. Adopting the latest legal instruments and ensuring their implementation.
  7. Implementing WHO sector-specific guidance for the management of COVID-19 on board cargo ships and fishing vessels.
  8. Provision of public key certificates associated with any health proof to relevant trust networks, such as ICAO for international travel.
  9. Regularly updating relevant guidance and mechanisms in line with developments and evolving scientific insights on medical emergencies at sea.
  10. Working to keep seafarers safe, limiting disruption to supply chains, and preventing the unchecked spread of emerging COVID variants, which could prolong the pandemic and its wide-ranging socioeconomic consequences.

“To maintain recent positive trends, governments and industry, in collaboration with international organizations, need to scale up their common efforts to limit the effects of emerging variants on crew changes while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of seafarers and global communities,” the signatories wrote in their joint statement.