The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee of Experts sent a strong message to governments that they have failed in their duty of care towards seafarers under international law during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically, 20 eminent jurists revealed that governments have failed abjectly to protect the minimum standards for the protection of seafarers’ rights, as set out in international law under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006. This includes basic rights such as access to healthcare, repatriation, annual leave and shore leave.
- Landmark ruling from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) finds that governments have breached seafarers’ rights and failed to comply with several provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Article I(2) on the duty to cooperate.
- UN agency calls on states to recognize seafarers as key workers “without delay”.
- High level committee of legal experts reiterate that “it is precisely at times of crisis that the protective coverage of the MLC assumes its full significance.”
The Committee stresses that
the notion of force majeure may no longer be invoked from the moment that options are available to comply with the provisions of the MLC, 2006, although more difficult or cumbersome, and urges ratifying States which have not yet done so, to adopt all necessary measures without delay to restore the protection of seafarers’ rights and comply to the fullest extent with their obligations under the MLC, 2006.
The Committee urges all ratifying countries with responsibilities as flag States to adopt the necessary measures and/or reinforce the existing ones without delay, including through more frequent inspections if necessary, to ensure that the ships that fly their flags fully comply with the provisions of the Convention. In particular, the Committee requests flag States, which have not yet done so, to ensure that:
- any extension of SEA is done with the seafarers’ freely expressed consent (Regulation 2.1, paragraph 2));
- no fees or other charges for seafarer recruitment or placement, including the cost of any quarantine obligations before joining the ship, are borne directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by the seafarer, other than the cost authorized under Standard A1.4, paragraph 5;
- the prohibition to forgo minimum annual leave with pay is strictly enforced, with the limited exceptions authorized by the competent authority (Regulation 2.4 and Standard A2.4, paragraph 3);
- seafarers are granted shore leave for their health and well-being and consistent with the operational requirement of their positions, subject to the strict respect of any public health measures applicable to the local population (Regulation 2.4, paragraph 2));
- seafarers are repatriated at no cost to themselves in the circumstances specified in the Convention, with strict respect of the default 11 months maximum period of service on board derived from the provisions of the Convention (Regulation 2.5 and Regulation 2.4);
- ships that fly its flag have a sufficient number of seafarers employed on board to ensure that ships are operated safely, efficiently and with due regard to security under all conditions, taking into account concerns about seafarer fatigue and the particular nature nd conditions of the voyage (Regulation 2.7);
- seafarers on ships that fly its flag are covered by adequate measures for the protection of their health and have access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst working on board, including access to vaccination (Regulation 4.1); General observation on matters arising from the application of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006) during the COVID-19 pandemic 6
- seafarers on ships that fly its flag are provided with occupational health protection and live, work and train on board ship in a safe and hygienic environment (Regulation 4.3); (i) seafarers have access to shore-based welfare facilities, where they exist, subject to the strict respect of any public health measures applicable to the local population (Regulation 4.4); and
- measures are taken to support seafarers’ wellbeing on board, in particular during the extended periods of service on board, including arrangements for contacting family and loved ones.
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In light of this finding, ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton and ICS Secretary General Guy Platten issued a joint statement:
Governments have been asked for months to address the crew change crisis, now they have been told that they must act to help the hundreds of thousands of seafarers still on-board ships due to the unlawful actions of member states.
This ruling clearly sets out that it is both legally and morally wrong for countries to continue to expect seafarers to work indefinitely, supplying the world with food, medicine and vital supplies, while depriving them of their fundamental rights as seafarers, as workers, and as humans. This landmark ruling is a clear vindication of what seafarers’ unions and shipowners have been saying for the past nine months.
This ruling makes clear that all governments have to follow international law and urgently recognise seafarers as key workers with practical effect. This means allowing seafarers to get off in ports for medical attention. It means enabling seafarers get to an airport to fly home when their contracts are finished. And it means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships without having to battle a mountain of bureaucracy. To date, only 46 countries have classified seafarers as key workers, which is simply not good enough.
We welcome the intervention from the ILO Committee of Experts in spelling out how governments have failed in their obligations. The Committee is unequivocal in its critique on the lack of required cooperation by governments. It criticises States for allowing the situation to persist for so long.
But it also explains how together we can fix this. This is one of the most direct and effective Experts’ observations we’ve seen. Once again a roadmap has been laid out for how to resolve this humanitarian crisis and return to a normally functioning crew change system that the world’s supply chains can rely on. It’s up to governments to get on with implementing that roadmap and urgently prioritise seafarers as key workers for COVID-19 vaccines as a clear demonstration of compliance with this finding.
The ongoing crew change crisis has been at the centre of attention from the beginning. Recently, a report launched by WMU revealed that the seafarers are facing serious impacts of the pandemic on crew changes and ship-shore interactions and reported an increase in workload in comparison to their workload prior to the pandemic.