Seafarers’ unions challenged governments, particularly those with maritime responsibilities, to endorse universal access to COVID-19 vaccines to prevent the crew change crisis from spiralling out of control for the third time.
“If the rich countries do not support patent waivers at the 8 June TRIPS Council meeting, then not only will more seafarers’ lives be lost – we will also miss our opportunity to be rid of the crew change crisis and the daily risk it places on essential supply chains,” said International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers’ Section chair David Heindel.
The ITF estimates that there are still around 200,000 international seafarers forced to work on vessels beyond their contracts due to governments’ ongoing border and travel restrictions. Thousands have been on board for more than a year. With unprecedented COVID outbreaks gripping India and other major seafarer labour-providing nations, the maritime industry fears that the number of seafarers trapped working on ships could double within weeks.
“We are at a crossroads. One path is universal access to vaccines for all seafarers by everyone doing their part: government, union, business; simultaneously and globally. The other path is seriously frightening: COVID on ships, seafarers dying at home, those on board unable to sign off,” said Heindel.
Flag states need to step up
“We are on the precipice of a third wave of the crew change crisis,” warned Heindel. “Now is the time for generosity and action from every kind of government.”
“We need to see the home countries of seafarers prioritising them as key workers for vaccines. We need port States to offer vaccines to seafarers visiting their shores. We need flag States to vaccinate all seafarers on ships which fly their flags.”
Heindel said the ITF welcomed news that the Dutch government had partnered with shipowners and local unions to vaccinate 49,000 seafarers from mid-June at a number of ports in the Netherlands and at Schiphol International Airport. The single-dose Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine will be given free to seafarers working aboard ships flying the Dutch flag or those under Dutch management.
“Congratulations to the Dutch government for recognising their responsibility to vaccinate seafarers on ships flying their flag. Operating a ship registry is not an opportunity to make easy money; it is a serious commitment. Flag States must uphold health, safety and seafarer welfare on their ships. The Netherlands understand this, and they are leading the way in stepping up to their responsibilities,” said Heindel.
“Likewise, the U.S. Coast Guard has assisted industry and labour representatives on an ad-hoc basis to vaccinate seafarers and plans are underway to introduce a programme to assist desiring crew in ports where a U.S. state makes vaccines available.”
Port States need to reopen borders to international seafarers, vaccinate them
Heindel said that some governments were re-introducing border restrictions after earlier giving international seafarers exemptions to have crew changes.
“We are deeply concerned that the Norwegian government has announced it is reintroducing quarantine for seafarers regardless of their COVID or vaccination status. This is the time for port State governments to be introducing new and expanded green lanes for international seafarers, not going backwards with more restrictions. Now is the time for them to welcome seafarers and use their ports as seafarer vaccination hubs.”
“Securing the global shipping industry requires global cooperation. The rich countries who have strong vaccine programmes should now turn their minds and resources to helping vaccinate these key workers,” said Heindel.
Seafaring unions are helping to drive vaccination effort
Unions across the world were already doing their part to help get international seafarers vaccinated. ITF inspectors and coordinators have been working with local unions and seafarer welfare charities to help roll out vaccine doses in the U.S. and Canada, while ITF-affiliated maritime unions are pushing for their port State governments to extend vaccines to visiting crew:
- In April Nautilus called for the United Kingdom to become an international seafarer vaccination hub, while the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada warned of a total shutdown of the country’s shipping industry if a plan was not developed to rapidly vaccinate seafarers.
- On 6 May ITF Inspector Barbara Shipley (Seafarers International Union – SIU) took 9 of the crew of the BW Canola (IMO: 9687124) to be vaccinated in Newport News, Virginia.
- Also on 15 May ITF Inspector Sam Levens (International Longshore and Warehouse Union – ILWU) helped get 58 seafarers vaccinated at the Port of Oakland at a new pop-up facility. The facility is a collaboration between the International Maritime Center, Alameda Department of Public Health and volunteers from the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific. Vaccinations are also being offered to seafarers at the Port of Oakland on a weekly basis at the Seafarer’s Center and onboard visiting vessels.
- On 15 May ITF Inspector Stefan Mueller (ILWU) escorted 21 crew from the MT Cabo DeHornos (IMO: 9311361) berthed at the International Seafarers Center to be vaccinated by the health department of Long Beach, California.
- On 12 May, ITF Inspector Shwe Aung (SIU) helped Indian crew from MT Bow Precision (IMO: 9790646) at Exxon terminal to receive vaccines doses at the Houston Seafarers’ Centre.
- Also on 13 May the Maritime Union of Australia welcomed the first vaccinations for international seafarers in New South Wales’ Port Botany, but called for it to be extended nationally.
- On May 20 the Port of Charleston approved a pilot program for seafarers to be vaccinated as they arrive via the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society center at Wando Welch Terminal. The Medical University of South Carolina has donated 500 Johnson & Johnson’s Jansen vaccines for the program which begins Monday 24 May. The center has already vaccinated 18 seafarers at its other locations.
- This month a further 84 seafarers were vaccinated on the US east coast at the International Seafarers’ Centers in Savannah and Brunswick, both Georgia. Five seafarers were also taken by ITF Inspector Eric White (Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association – MEBA) to be vaccinated when they visited a Florida port on 5 May.