Geneva, 28 February 2022 (TDI): Four United Nations (UN) organizations issued a joint declaration on 28 February calling for the continued international alliance to address the crew change (seafarers) crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic changes, new tasks, and Omicron variants loom to deteriorate the predicament of the world’s seafarers, who play a vital role in international trade.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UNCTAD, and the World Health Organization (WHO) urged governments as well as the shipping industry to scale up efforts to protect seafarers’ health and safety.

The COVID-19 travel restrictions eased and vaccination rates increased among maritime personnel, however, the humanitarian crisis at sea showed indication of development before the Omicron variant.

According to the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator which is based on facts from 10 main ship managers employing around 90,000 seafarers, the percentage of seafarers onboard vessels outside their agreements reduced from 9% in July 2021 to 3.7% in December 2021.

The United Nations bodies are concerned that the positive tendencies detected before Omicron could be further reversed. “While the number of seafarers that remain stranded has decreased.

It remains considerable and further efforts must be made to rectify the situation and alleviate the continuing crisis,” the statement declares.

Crucial for International Trade

Over 80% of the volume of worldwide trade in goods is carried by sea. And throughout the pandemic, the global 1.9 million sailors have played a significant part in keeping ships.

Likewise, they have played a critical role in moving and safeguarding critical items like food, medical equipment, and vaccines are carried. However, due to restrictions imposed to combat the pandemic’s spread, many seamen were unable to leave their ships.

They remained stuck at sea much after the expiration of their work contracts, and often far beyond the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006, as revised, default 11-month maximum length of continuous duty on board.

Similarly, some seafarers have been unable to join ships to substitute stranded crews, leading to an important economic loss and suffering in hardship for them and their families.

While onboard ships, seafarers have also faced a variety of other obstacles that put them in danger or under increased stress. In December, UNCTAD issued a policy brief.

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The brief highlighted the need for stronger global cooperation to keep seafarers safe and worldwide supply chains open amid the evolving pandemic.

Moreover, it highlighted that action to keep the rights and welfare of maritime shipping staff and their families would help in financial matters of seafarers’ home nations and maintain the smooth flow of global trade.

Such sustenance would also benefit advance development on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 8 on decent work and economic development.

Calls to action

Recognizing the critical role of the maritime sector in keeping trade flowing during the global fight against COVID-19, the four UN organizations take the following 10 critical actions.

  1. Provide seafarers with immediate access to medical care.
  2. Designate seafarers as “key workers”, providing a vital service, to facilitate maritime staff changes and safe drive across borders.
  3. Prioritizing the vaccination of seafarers and exempting them from any national policy requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
  4. Administer COVID-19 tests and suitable PPE to seafarers, including PCR tests where essential, to facilitate the identification of cases on board.
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  5. Safeguard the reliable application of globally agreed protocols and standards, including those for seafarers’ travel and vaccination papers, coordinate properly, and take procedures to avoid disciplinary actions.
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  6. Adopt and apply the most current legislative tools, such as the MLC of 2006 and the Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention (Revised), 2003, as modified (No. 185).
  7. Instrument the newly updated WHO sector-specific guidance for the administration of COVID-19 onboard cargo ships and fishing vessels, issued in December 2021.
  8. Relevant, public key certificates associated with any health proof to relevant trust networks, such as ICAO for international travel.
  9. Continue to cooperate to ensure that related direction is regularly updated, in line with growths and evolving scientific insights.
  10. Undertake intensive cooperative efforts to keep seafarers safe and limit the disruption to supply chains, as well as prevent the unchecked spread of emerging VOCs, which could prolong the pandemic and its wide-ranging socioeconomic consequences.