By Capt Glenn Mathias
Australian Maritime Consultancy
Sydney, Australia

Many countries depend upon cargoes transported by ships that are operated by seafarers. Likewise, many NGOs exist, and some derive their profits from ships operated by seafarers. For this reason, the safety and well-being of seafarers should be protected by these countries and NGOs whenever the occasion demands.

According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), about 400,000 seafarers remain effectively quarantined on their ships, some for more than 12 months, and cannot be repatriated to their home countries for leave.

The reason is that countries through which the seafarers would transit are concerned that those seafarers could be infected by the COVID-19 virus; consequently, these countries have not considered transit arrangements that could overcome their concerns.

The following has been extracted from the IMO website dated 25 September 2020, paraphrased where necessary:

The UN, maritime industry, business and union leaders warn of deepening crew change crisis which threatens trade and maritime safety.

Some 400,000 seafarers from across the globe are now stranded on ships, continuing to work but unable to be relieved, in a deepening crew change crisis which threatens trade and maritime safety.

During a high-level event on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (24 September), Captain Hedi Marzougui, who was in command of a vessel between December 2019 and May 2020, appealed to governments to act to allow seafarers to come home.

“Not knowing when or if we will be returning home brings a severe mental toll on my crew and myself,” Captain Marzougui said. “I would encourage each and every one of you to think of how you would feel, if you had to work every day, for 12 hours, with no weekends, without seeing your loved ones, and trapped at sea. Now add that you have to do that with no idea of when you will be repatriated.”

Despite multiple pleas to governments to designate them as essential key workers and to facilitate their travel, the number of seafarers whose contracts have been extended by several months has continued to increase. Some seafarers have now been at sea for 17 months without a break, well beyond the 11-month limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention.

“Overly fatigued and mentally exhausted seafarers are being asked to continue to operate ships,” said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim. On more than 60,000 cargo ships which continue to deliver vital goods, foods and medicines, ship safety is hanging in the balance, just as seafarers’ lives are being made impossible. The safety of navigation is in peril.”

Secretary-General Lim restated his plea to governments: “Action is needed – and is needed now. We all depend on seafarers. They should not be the collateral victims in this pandemic. Seafarers deliver for us – and now we need to deliver for them.”

Seafarers sign up to serve on ships for less than 12 months as mandated by the Maritime Labour Convention, Regulation 2.5 – Repatriation Purpose; Standard A2.5.1. 2(b), after which they are entitled to be repatriated to their homes for leave. The regulation states: “the maximum duration of service periods on board following which a seafarer is entitled to repatriation – such periods to be less than 12 months”.

Member agencies of the IMO comprise the heads of marine agencies from countries involved in the maritime sector. It should be noted that member agencies can only bind their governments in maritime matters – this does not include matters of quarantine and border control.

In a land-based office, an employee placed on notice for poor performance could blame their performance on mental health issues. Management may back off and allow the employee to work at their own pace according to their own schedule, for example. This scenario could happen in a shipowner’s land-based office. But, when that same shipowner’s seafarer employees raise the issue of mental health after serving more than 12 months on a ship, the shipowner simply ignores the seafarers with impunity.

Although IMO members do not have the power to bind their governments in matters of quarantine and border crossing, the member states of the UN can exercise such power. Therefore, member states should be required to consider, at the earliest, a resolution to agree on the arrangements to repatriate the 400,000 seafarers.

The arrangements could be as simple as testing all seafarers of a ship where one or more seafarer requires repatriation. If all seafarers on the ship are free from the COVID-19 virus, the seafarers requiring repatriation should be repatriated without delay. Ships with one or more infected seafarers should be subject to the same quarantine and testing protocols that apply to those countries’ returning citizens, after which the seafarers requiring repatriation should be repatriated.

There is precedent of COVID-19 being discussed by the General Assembly (Seventy-Fourth Session, 64th Meeting (PM); GA/12262; 11 September 2020) as per the extract from the UN website:

By a recorded vote … the assembly adopted a 14-page omnibus resolution titled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic”. It acknowledged the key leadership role of WHO — and the fundamental role of the United Nations system — in catalysing and co-ordinating the global response to COVID-19, and the central efforts of member states.

It called for intensified international cooperation and solidarity to contain, mitigate and overcome the pandemic and its consequences through responses that are people-centred and gender-responsive, with full respect for human rights.

The second paragraph is didactic because it calls for intensified international co-operation and solidarity to overcome the pandemic through responses that are people-centred, with “full respect for human rights”; such rights would include seafarers’ mental health.

Secretary-General Lim, as the head of the IMO, should lead a small team comprising IMO members from countries of affected seafarers and certain other NGOs associated with seafarers and shipowners: International Chamber of Shipping, representing shipowner associations and about 80% of the world’s ships; the International Labour Organisation, comprising governments, employers and workers of more than 180 member states; and protection and indemnity clubs, which cover about 90% of the world’s ships for their liabilities that include pollution and repatriation of seafarers abandoned by derelict shipowners.

Mr Lim’s team should propose a resolution for the General Assembly to agree on arrangements to repatriate the 400,000 seafarers because the General Assembly has resolved to support measures against COVID-19 with “full respect for human rights”.

Mr Lim’s resolution should be supported by UN Secretary General António Gutteres, who would be aware that, through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, member states have pledged to achieve, in co-operation with the UN, promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms including the right to be treated in a spirit of brotherhood (Art 1); the rights and freedoms being independent from political or other opinion, national or social origin (Art 2); freedom from arbitrary detention (Art 9); and periodic holidays with pay (Art 24). Should Mr Lim and his team fail in their efforts, it should not be for lack of trying.