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SEAFARER WELLBEING IN TIMES OF CORONA: A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Over the past 14 months, the world has seen an ‘unprecedented disruption to societies, economies and global trade’ as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cataclysmic repercussions have been felt on land but also at sea.

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been marooned onboard ships or indefinitely detained in ports unable to return to their homes and families. Mental and physical health issues have made their lives a veritable ordeal and interfered with their normal functioning. Consequently, maritime navigation, safety at sea and even the marine environment have also been in peril. Indeed, the seafarers’ fate has constituted a true humanitarian crisis.

International institutional reactions to this crisis have been numerous. UN agencies such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have made countless calls to action to their Member States. Their bulletins and memoranda have sounded increasingly alarmed at the absence of immediate action on behalf of national governments to find a solution for the crises unfolding at sea. The marine industry itself now speaks of the ‘abandonment’ of seafarers by their own national governments. Fortunately, a turning point came earlier this year when the ‘Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change’ (The Neptune Declaration) was signed.     

The Neptune Declaration

On 26th January, a sizeable taskforce of stakeholders from across the maritime value chain promulgated the Neptune Declaration at the Davos Agenda Week. Responding to their responsibility to treat seafarers as ‘frontline workers’ in the maritime transport industry – which, incidentally, carries around 90% of global trade, the taskforce has forcefully spoken out against the health risks to crews affected by the Pandemic and the related ship safety issues. It has identified what it perceives as the key issues causing the hardship:

  • The absence of implementation of international high quality health protocols leading authorities to perceive seafarers as a Covid-19 risk thus limiting the possibility of timely crew changes,
  • High quality crew change protocols would reduce the economic risk of disrupted supply chains and ship safety, and
  • The disruption of international air travel has caused connectivity problems between major crew change hubs and the airports of major seafaring nations which in itself causes crew change and repatriation issues.

Action to be implemented

The signatories to the Declaration have called upon all stakeholders to join them forthwith in implementing the following action:

  • To recognize seafarers as key workers and give them priority access to Covid-19 vaccines alongside other key workers and health care professionals and establishing a standardised format for health passes containing tamper proof information about vaccination and testing status,   
  • To establish and implement gold standard health protocols based on existing best practice,
  • To increase collaboration between ship owners and operators and charters to facilitate crew changes. No charter contracts should contain clauses preventing necessary crew changes. The effect of such clauses could adversely affect the safe operation of maritime trade and the wellbeing and rights of the seafarers,
  • To ensure partnership with national airlines and aviation authorities, between the aviation industry and the maritime industry to ensure smooth airlift capacity.

The original signatories of the ’Declaration’ counted some 300 organisations ranging from marketleaders in the energy sector and the world’s largest ship owners to one-ship companies. What caused the process of awareness and recognition to speed up almost one year after outbreak of the Pandemic?

The action taken by international organisations

As early as 31 January 2020, the IMO, the UN specialised agency tasked with maintaining the international safety and security of shipping circulated its Members, national Governments, with a first warning about a “novel coronavirus” which threatened the existence of seafarers detained at sea or waiting for embarkation on land. During February, The World Health Organisation (WHO) joined IMO’s calls to action.

After issuing several more Circulars during the month of March, the IMO distributed on 27th March a voluminous Circular accompanied by 12 Protocols with detailed recommendations on how to handle the Pandemic at sea. Whilst forcefully suggesting that professional seafarers and related marine personnel be designated as ‘key workers providing an essential service’, the purpose of the Circular and Protocols appeared at that stage primarily to recommend procedures to protect the international supply chain and the world economy at large.

Nevertheless, in April the IMO established the Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) to help resolve individual cases of hardship whilst dealing with thousands of seamen in distress globally. Joined by the ILO, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), SCAT’s humanitarian initiative proved efficient and a welcome success story in what was to become an otherwise grim tale.

Between 27th March and 6th May, the IMO wrote 10 more times to its Members in increasingly urgent terms impressing upon them the need to take immediate action on national level to prioritise solutions to the seafarer problem. At that stage 400,000 seafarers needed to be repatriated, with a similar number waiting to join ships.

Of the 1,647.500 seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships worldwide almost half were therefore detained as a result of the Pandemic. By comparison, an ICS estimate notes that worldwide during normal circumstances 100,000 seafarers are rotated every month, with 50,000 embarking ships and 50,000 disembarking.

On 20th May the IMO, the WHO and the ILO together issued a joint Statement with pressing, almost pleading, recommendations:

“Our three Organisations seek to ensure that seafarers, marine personnel, fishing vessel personnel … aviation personnel…..are designated as ‘key workers’, regardless of nationality, to exempt them from travel restrictions, to ensure their access to emergency medical treatment and, if necessary, to facilitate emergency repatriation….crew changes CANNOT BE POSTPONED INDEFINITELY (ed.)”.

On 20th June the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), one of the world’s largest ship owners associations, produced a Covid-19 Crew Change Clause for insertion in Time Charter Parties designed to permit a vessel to deviate for crew changes in the event Covid-19 restrictions prevented such changes from being conducted at ports or places to which the vessel has been ordered.

On 9th July the UK hosted a virtual international maritime summit on the impact of Covid-19 restrictions preventing crew changes. Only 15 nations attended but 13 countries pledged action. Whilst the commitment indicated some progress to help resolve the problems within the maritime industry, BIMCO criticised the low turn out at the Summit, stating :

“Now is not the time for inward looking nationalism – all governments need to step up to the mark and work together to provide a tangible international solution to a pressing international problem; robust, decisive and immediate action is needed to bring our seafarers home safely”.

International resolutions

Through the advent of internationally binding Resolutions in the autumn of 2020, it appears to have dawned on national governments and individual actors and stakeholders that remedial action to save seafarers during the Pandemic had to be prioritised. The essence of the recommended action was now:

To achieve the ‘key worker’ designation for seafarers, first of all recognising them as unique and essential workers for international shipping and for the world’s uninterrupted transportation of vital medical supplies, food and other basic necessities during and after the Pandemic. All the other recommendations with regard to health, repatriation, maritime safety and preserving global trade would naturally flow from that crucial designation.

By Resolution MSC.473 (ES.2) of 21st September, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee “with deep concern about the significant challenges being faced…” noted in compelling terms that 300,000 seafarers still required immediate repatriation, with many more serving on extended crew contracts and being overdue to return home, whilst some 300,000 urgently needed to join ships to replace them.

By Resolution A/75/L.37 of 24th November, a “deeply concerned” UN General Assembly called for the “prompt implementation” of the countless protocols and recommendations from other UN bodies which had preceded it.

By Resolution GB. 340/Resolution (Rev.2) of 8th December, the ILO Governing Body signposted that “despite numerous appeals and actions through the United Nations system, hundreds of thousands of seafarers continued to work well beyond their usual period of service …” .

What happened next?

Even after Christmas 2020, progress to persuade Member and Associate States to sign up to action to designate seafarers as key workers appeared sluggish and collective state and regional engagement between the IMO, the ILO and Member States on the key issue of seafarer designation had still not materialised.

But then private and semi-private organisations in the shipping industry, insurers, brokers, ship managers, banks, classification societies, trade organisations and professional associations as well as NGO’s stepped in with an independent initiative.  

On 26th January during the Davos Agenda Week, the Neptune Decaration was launched and signed at once by 327 global industry leaders. These organisations have begun recruiting like-minded participants in the marine industry and the groundswell has grown exponentially. A collective effort to implement best practice standards in their own organisations based on humanitarian priciples is now well underway.

On 2nd March there were 600 signatories to the Declaration and on 26th April the Global Maritime Forum recorded 800 signatories and counting.  

The lessons to be learned

A private effort based on human rights priciples coming from the marine industry has so far proved to be far more effective than action undertaken by national governments. On 5th February this year the IMO notably recorded that 53 notifications from Member States had been received which affirm that their governments have designated seafarers as key workers. In the month of March the figure had barely reached 60.

It is disheartening that even in an international emergency on an unparalleled scale such as the global pandemic, a lack of immediate engagement by national governments on a humanitarian issue needs the example set by civil society to begin to implement regulations which unlock the issue of crew abandonment and crew change. Yet, this is the harsh reality.

And with this lesson learned, it is to be hoped that when the world’s marine industry next faces a humanitarian crisis (A) public action on a national basis will be swift and decisive whilst B) private initiative will step in sooner to aid and assist the most valuable commodity in the industry, namely the human commodity, the seafarers, regardless of the steps nation states are taking. It therefore only seems fitting that the IMO have chosen action for seafarers “who are facing unprecedented hardship due to the Covid-19 pandemic, despite their vital role as key workers for global supply lines” as their World Maritime Theme for 2021.

About the Author

Reina Maria van Pallandt is a senior disputes resolution lawyer with dual British and Dutch nationality. After obtaining an LLB Honors degree in Dutch Law and Public International Law at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), Reina Maria studied International Law of the Sea at London School of Economics (LSE). She was admitted as a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England & Wales in 1979 and of the Law Society of Ireland in 2019. Reina Maria originally practised as a solicitor at Holman, Fenwick & Willan in London and Paris and thereafter at Clifford Chance where she specialised in marine and general commercial arbitration and litigation representing shipowners, P&I Clubs, shipbuilders, repair yards and charterers such as oil and gas companies and commodity traders.

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