Seafarers Need Recognition and Support from Governments: IMO Chief
Date: Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal
The world’s top maritime regulator writes that seafarers are ensuring the movement of essential goods during the pandemic, but restrictions on crew changes are leaving thousands stranded at sea
Since the coronavirus became a global pandemic and most of the world has gone into lockdown, we have all had to adjust swiftly to new ways of living and working.
All over the world, spontaneous rituals of applause for key workers have provided millions with a degree of solidarity in the face of an enemy that requires a coordinated, global response to overcome.
We cheer and applaud the hospital workers, the medical staff, the ambulance drivers, the rescue services, even food delivery drivers. And all of them richly deserve it.
But there is another group of worker that we all rely on every bit as much but rarely think about because we rarely see them. They work not only far from the spotlight, but literally away from their homes and families, and far from our shores. These are the world’s seafarers.
More than 80% of global trade is delivered by sea, from consumer items like fashion and electronics to the basics we need to survive: food, fuel, medical supplies, hospital equipment. It is thanks to the professionalism and dedication of over 1.5 million seafarers that all these essential items are delivered—quietly, efficiently and safely—seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Even in good times, seafarers are unsung heroes of the global economy. Their work is physically and mentally demanding, lonely and remote.
The global pandemic has plunged many seafarers into desperate situations that few of us could have imagined. Restrictions on individual travel have had unintended and traumatic repercussions for many seafarers. Many now are effectively stuck on ships, at sea or at anchor, with their vessels unable to dock, disembark or resupply, unable to access medical care. Workers are unable to return home to their families after months at sea.
Both their physical and mental health are being strained.
At IMO, we have been in constant contact with governments, the shipping and ports industry, seafarer welfare organizations, trade unions and our sister United Nations agencies, especially the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Labour Organization, to find solutions to these problems.
Our common efforts have led to some improvement, with several governments declaring seafarers to be key workers and facilitating and enabling crew changes, but there is still a long way to go.
At this point, tens of thousands of the world’s 2 million seafarers remain stranded at sea.
I strongly support and urge all governments to implement the industry-developed protocols to ensure crew changes can occur safely and efficiently. Not only is this essential to maintain the global supply chain, for humanitarian reasons crew changes cannot be postponed indefinitely.
Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have had their contracts involuntarily extended because replacement crews could not get to their ships; some have been at sea continuously for over 15 months. Most of these contract extensions expired on May 15.
A further transition period to June 15 has expired with barely a quarter of those needing repatriation getting off ships. Further extensions would jeopardize the safety of navigation.
These unsung heroes of transportation are fatigued. They deserve to go home, and the replacement crews deserve to get to their assigned ships without delay so that they, too, can earn money to support their families and keep the global supply chain moving safely, efficiently and sustainably.
I have written to all our member governments, urging them to recognize all seafarers as “key workers” and to remove any national travel restrictions so that they can get home and rejoin their families, and for those who are waiting on shore to join ships so they can continue to earn their wages.
Seafarers’ work is unique and essential. Just like other key workers, seafarers are on the front line in this global fight. They need and deserve quick and decisive humanitarian action from governments everywhere.