As the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) apex institution for maritime and ocean education, the World Maritime University (WMU) adds its voice to widespread concerns over the serious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health, wellbeing, and safety of seafarers.
As countries around the world retreat to fight the pandemic, travel restrictions and financial losses are hitting shipping and other ocean-related industries hard. At sea, maritime workers are bearing the brunt of this global humanitarian crisis.
Echoing the messages contained in IMO circular letter 4204 and the statement issued by the Officers of the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC, 2006), WMU urges relevant national authorities, in a particular port and flag State authorities as well as labor-supplying countries, to designate seafarers as key workers and adopt prompt and effective measures that ensure their rights to health and repatriation.
While the disruption in national economies caused by the pandemic is already inestimable, the magnitude of this crisis would even be more severe if not for the commitment of the estimated two million seafarers who continued to provide strategic transport services. Their rights as essential workers cannot be forgotten especially in the midst of the state of emergency declared in many countries around the world.
The World Maritime University calls on the global maritime and ocean communities to come together and join forces to protect seafarers’ rights. WMU urges them to stay vigilant and react promptly, to tackle the infringement of basic rights and to ensure access to necessities such as medical supplies, fuel, water, spare parts and provisions to ships. Protective equipment is as essential on board as it is ashore. National authorities and employers alike must ensure the strict implementation of appropriate occupational health promotion measures on board.
The denial of access to shore-based medical facilities is especially disturbing in these challenging times. Access to a safe port is a long-standing international obligation and compliance is even more important in these unprecedented circumstances. National authorities must cooperate with employers to secure prompt medical assistance on board and ashore.
Full cooperation is necessary to relax travel restrictions on seafarers. Crew changes have become a serious issue. Shipping companies are forced to minimize crew travel in order to prevent seafarers from being stranded in transit facilities without any assistance. While this might be an extraordinary preventative measure, it entails further occupational risks as it implies a longer stay on board than agreed, thus increasing the risk of fatigue and poor mental health. Support for seafarer repatriation efforts must also be intensified. Travel restrictions and financial losses are significantly increasing the risk of abandonment. Abandonment fears have already triggered the launch of a charity crowdfunding campaign by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), to reinforce their Seafarers Emergency Fund and respond to increased calls to their Seafarers Help hotline. While initiatives by welfare organizations are appreciated, shipowners are reminded that repatriation and payment of wages are primarily their responsibility.
As the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General and WMU Chancellor Kitack Lim stated on March 19:
“…We must also remember the hundreds of thousands of seafarers on ships. They are, unwittingly, on the front line of this global calamity. Their professionalism ensures that the goods we all need are delivered – safely and with minimal impact on our precious environment. These are people, usually far from home and family. Their own health and welfare is as important as that of anyone else.”
Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of WMU stated: “The world’s seafarers are indispensable to international trade. They are the lifeblood of the maritime industry and without them the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and all the many things we take for granted would not be possible. In times of crises like COVID-19, Governments must ensure that seafarers can transit, transfer and join ships in ports around the world so that shipping can continue to provide the world with the goods including urgent medical equipment that countries need.”