Shipping article(s)
September 29, 2020

The United Nations (UN) renewed its calls on governments worldwide to designate seafarers as “key workers” to avert a looming crisis related to crew change that could disrupt the supply chain.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said 800,000 seafarers are currently either left stranded on vessels or prevented from returning to ships due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and transit.


“I remain very concerned about the growing humanitarian and safety crisis facing hundreds of thousands of these indispensable workers. Despite the unprecedented conditions brought about by the pandemic, seafarers have continued to tirelessly support the often invisible global logistics chain,” Guterres said in a statement.


“Physically and mentally exhausted ... their time at sea has now been extended far beyond the standards stipulated in international conventions, with some tours of duty now stretching more than 17 months. Fatigued seafarers cannot operate indefinitely, and disruptions to international shipping would have devastating consequences,” he added. 

UN agencies have convened a meeting during the UN General Assembly Week to call for urgent action to address the humanitarian, economic and safety crisis in the world's shipping industry which could have implications for global supply chains, with more than 80% of goods transported by sea, including food, fuel, and medical supplies.


In a letter issued to the UN Secretary-General, the CEOs of 30 Consumer Goods Forum companies, including Unilever, has called on governments to designate seafarers as “key workers” to grant exemptions from government-imposed travel restrictions and quarantine measures, currently preventing seafarers getting to and from ships.


“Seafarers are essential workers that keep global supply chains functioning. Without them, there are no masks, no COVID tests, no hand sanitizer, or other essential goods. There is no food, there is no medicine. These supply chains are on the verge of serious disruption,” said Marc Engel, Unilever’s chief supply chain officer.


He said governments must “step in and organise the facilitation of crew changes, and work together with the shipping industry on a way through this standstill that recognises seafarers' rights and averts the risk of widespread disruption to the global economy.”


Actions taken


ILO Director-General Guy Ryder called on governments to implement urgent and pragmatic solutions that fully respect seafarers’ rights.


“Seafarers are exhausted and simply cannot continue working onboard indefinitely. I hope we do not need to wait for a major disruption of supply chains or an environmental disaster to stir action to effectively tackle this crisis.”

Some flag states are now taking action. From October 1, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority will not accept extensions of service without taking leave beyond 14 months.

Panama, the world’s largest flag state, has enforced similar measures. Noriel Araúz, Panama’s Minister of Maritime Affairs, will also address the virtual UN event.


International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Kitack Lim cited the urgency of the situation.


“Action is needed – now. We all depend on seafarers. They should not be the collateral victims in this pandemic ... “governments must act in a coordinated manner to recognize seafarers as key workers, exempting them from travel restrictions, and implement the recommended framework of protocols for safe crew changes,” he said.


Transport officials and the shipping industry are increasingly frustrated by the lack of a holistic approach to shipping protocols following the pandemic.

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