It is estimated that 400,000 seafarers are currently stranded on ships beyond the end of their original contracts and unable to be repatriated, due to COVID-related travel restrictions. Some have now been working at sea for over 18 months, well beyond the 11-month limit set out in ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). A similar number of seafarers are stuck at home, unable to join ships and provide for their families.
In a statement issued on Human Rights Day (10 December), IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim invited everyone in the logistics and supply chains to stand up for human rights across the maritime sector. “Sadly, we have seen human rights of seafarers, fishers and other marine workers put in jeopardy during the pandemic,” Mr Lim said. “This is a clear human rights issue. This is causing immense strain, fatigue and exhaustion and is unsustainable.”
People in the maritime sector have been on the frontline during the pandemic, delivering food, medicines and essential goods across the globe. However, seafarers cannot stay at sea indefinitely. The Secretary-General warned that failure to protect the rights of seafarers, fishers and other marine personnel will jeopardise the safety of shipping and have a detrimental effect on global supply chains. (Read the full message below.)
Seafarers tell their pandemic stories in new IMO video
To help increase awareness of the issue, IMO has launched a video featuring seafarers who describe the challenges they have faced due to the pandemic, and the impacts of the resulting crew change crisis on their physical and mental health.
Among them, British Chief Engineer Matt Forster saw his original 10-week contract extended and ended up spending six months at sea. “The biggest psychological effect was that you couldn’t see an end to it. None of us signed up for that. We want to go to work, do our job, and then come home. We didn’t sign up for what felt like an unjustified prison sentence,” he said.
American Captain Hedi Marzougui said that the extended period on board had a significant impact sea on his crew and himself. “The longer you stay out there, the more fatigued you get physically. The hours start to add up, the weeks and months start to add up. And you get very tired and you are not as sharp as you are when you are doing your normal stint,” he said, adding that fatigue and exhaustion can lead to accidents.
Captain Marzougui called on the world to help his fellow seafarers still stranded at sea. “We also have rights as human beings, we have a family of our own. We have a life to get back to. We’re not robots, we shouldn’t be seen as second-class citizens,” he said.
Among the seafarers who were unable to join ships due to travel restrictions, Indian Second Officer Pankaj Gautham experienced significant difficulties feeding his family. “It was financially a crisis for me, and it was a difficult time”, he said.
IMO’s action for seafarers’ rights
On Human Rights Day, IMO is calling on all Governments who have not already done so to designate seafarers and marine personnel as key workers, with all the related priorities for travel, transit and vaccination this entails, and to safely allow seafarers to travel, using recommended crew change protocols. The UN General Assembly has also called on UN Member States to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers, in a resolution adopted on 1 December.
IMO’s Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) continues to assist distressed seafarers in desperate situations, defending their human rights to decent working conditions, fair treatment, access to shore-based medical care and repatriation. SCAT has dealt with cases involving thousands of individual seafarers this year.
UN Human Rights Day, 10 December 2020
Failure to protect the rights of seafarers, fishers and other marine personnel and resolve the crew change crisis will have a detrimental effect on ship safety and the global supply chain. The longer the situation persists, the worse those effects will be. Kitack Lim, Secretary-General, International Maritime Organization (IMO)
Message from Kitack Lim, Secretary-General, International Maritime Organization (IMO)
“On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) stands united with the UN family in defending human rights. As we come through the COVID-19 pandemic, we must work together to build back a more sustainable, resilient and fair world, with human rights at the centre of all we do.
People in the maritime sector have been on the frontline during the pandemic. Seafarers, marine personnel, port workers, fishers – have been delivering food, medicines and vital goods for the global economy. These people will be fundamental for the post-COVID recovery, and their rights to safe and decent work conditions must be recognized, respected and protected.
Sadly, we have seen human rights of seafarers, fishers and other marine workers put in jeopardy during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers, who are vital to maintaining supply chains, remain stranded at sea for months beyond their contracted time. Similar numbers are stuck at home, unable to join ships and provide for their families. This is a clear human rights issue. This is causing immense strain, fatigue and exhaustion and is unsustainable.
Failure to protect the rights of seafarers, fishers and other marine personnel and resolve the crew change crisis will have a detrimental effect on ship safety and the global supply chain. The longer the situation persists, the worse those effects will be.
On Human Rights Day, I call on all Governments who have not already done so to designate seafarers and marine personnel as key workers, with all the related priorities for travel, transit and vaccination this entails. In this call I am not alone; the whole of the United Nations is joining in, as evidenced by the recent adoption of resolution A/75/L.37 by the General Assembly, “International cooperation to address challenges faced by seafarers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to support global supply chains”.
IMO’s Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) has this year dealt with hundreds of individual cases, assisting distressed seafarers in desperate circumstances. Ensuring basic human rights, decent working conditions, fair treatment, access to shore based medical care and repatriation is at the heart of these seafarer cases and is in line with the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 8 – decent work for all.
We must also continue to address abandonment of seafarers. The number of cases has substantially increased in 2020. To date, 65 new cases have been reported – compared to 40 during 2019. Of these new cases, only 18 have been resolved so far. Nearly a third of cases reported this year are a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to work with the International Labour Organization (ILO), Member States and industry and trade union partners to try to resolve these cases, based on our collective responsibility and human duty. While the causes of abandonment are many, they all have a dramatic human impact that must be addressed.
This year’s Human Rights Day provides an opportunity to focus on the rights of vital workers, including those in the maritime sector. We all depend on them.
I invite everyone involved in the logistics and supply chains to take action to stand up for human rights, across the maritime sector and fair treatment, ensuring that the rights of seafarers, fishers and other marine personnel are uppermost in their corporate social responsibility plans.
Today, to recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic, I am standing up for human rights: are you?”