Sea Logistics

COVID has left seafarers stuck out at sea – this must change

  • Thousands of seafarers have been unable to get back on dry land due to COVID restrictions.
  • Shipping companies call for a concerted effort by governments.
  • Making seafarers ‘key workers’ could help resolve the problem.

This op-ed signed by several shipping industry leaders was first published in TradeWinds.

The holiday season is approaching fast for much of the world’s population and will be an opportunity for many to spend time with family and friends. But for thousands of seafarers, the ongoing crew change crisis deprives them even of the hope of being home in time for the holidays.

Many governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing their borders and banning seafarers from coming ashore, even for medical treatment in some cases. These restrictions have led to many of the world’s seafarers becoming trapped working aboard cargo vessels well beyond the expiry of the initial contracts they signed up for. While significant efforts by individual companies, international organizations, industry associations, labor unions, NGOs, and some governments, has improved the situation, the reality of this humanitarian crisis continues.

This is an unacceptable way to treat seafarers, who are the frontline workers of global seaborne trade, as fatigue after extended periods at sea has significant consequences on physical and mental wellbeing. Fatigue also increases the risk of maritime incidents and environmental disasters and poses a wider threat to the integrity of global supply chains dependent on safe and reliable maritime transport.

This is why we – following initial discussions at the Global Maritime Forum’s Virtual High-Level Meeting in October – have established a taskforce of key stakeholders from across the maritime value chain to develop concrete actions to help resolve the crew change crisis as quickly as possible.

In our work, we have identified the following issues that must be addressed:

Recognize seafarers as key workers and treat them accordingly by giving them early access to COVID-19 vaccinations

Maritime trade is essential to the well-being of society. Seafarers are the key workers that allow global supply chains to continue to operate even during a global pandemic. This has been recognized by the UN General Assembly, which on 1 December adopted a resolution calling for all governments to give seafarers key worker status. But the key workers status only helps if it leads to tangible government action, for instance by facilitating international travel and by giving seafarers priority access to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Implement high-quality health protocols

One reason for the current crisis are the restrictions on crew changes that many governments have put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To build trust that the removal of such barriers can be done safely, we need to implement high-quality health protocols to ensure seafarers can move safely and securely to-and-from ships, via airports and other transport hubs.

The good news is that the maritime industry has already developed such protocols, which have been recognized by the International Maritime Organization. Unfortunately, these protocols have not been consistently implemented across all relevant jurisdictions or by all relevant stakeholders.

In our discussions, we have identified the Singapore Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resilience (SG-STAR) Fund initiative as a gold standard that we recommend other jurisdictions to adopt to facilitate safe crew changes. SG-STAR Fund is a collaboration between the government of Singapore, the shipping industry including the International Chamber of Shipping and seafarer unions such as the International Transport Workers’ Federation, that recommend best practices and safe measures in the home country of the seafarer as well as in the country where the crew change will take place.

Read More: COVID has left seafarers stuck out at sea – this must change

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