Unsung Heroes, Victims of the Pandemic
By Natalie Jensen
Seafarers play a vital role in international trade and the transportation of goods globally, and this has become particularly topical and evident during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite being the unsung heroes of the pandemic, seafarers have fallen victim to a humanitarian and safety crisis. Travel restrictions have caused an array of issues which have significantly impacted the ability for crew changes to be undertaken resulting in hundreds of thousands of seafarers being stranded at sea, unable to be replaced or repatriated, while hundreds of thousands of others are stranded ashore unable to work.
The fact that the pandemic has upended normal operating procedures in respect of crew changes is not surprising. In April 2020, it was estimated that 91 percent of the world’s population lived in a country with Covid-19 related travel restrictions in place and 39 percent lived in a country where the borders were completely shut to non-citizens and nonresidents. While such restrictions have been relaxed significantly by some countries, others have re-imposed them in light of further waves of the virus.
The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 provides that the maximum continuous period that a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months and seafarers have a right to be repatriated to their home countries at the end of their contracts. Clearly, as a result of the pandemic, many seafarers have long exceeded their contractual periods aboard vessels.
In an attempt to ease the plight of seafarers and assist with the facilitation of crew changes, an increasing number of countries have designated seafarers as key workers. According to the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, as of May 20, 2021, 62 countries had designated seafarers as key workers. It is anticipated that additional countries may have also done so without reporting it to the IMO.
More Action Needed
While it is encouraging that an increasing number of countries have designated seafarers as key workers, there are a significant number of states in which seafarers remain subject to restrictions. In addition, even in countries where seafarers are designated as key workers, the legislation is inconsistent with some countries applying the key worker designation solely to nationals of specified countries and applying restrictions to those from elsewhere.
Another issue is priority vaccination of seafarers. According to the IMO, only 24 countries have implemented such programs or shown an intent to do so.
While governments have a large part to play in addressing the issues faced by seafarers, all players in the industry need to assist. More than 850 companies have signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, which aims to assist in the recognition of seafarers as key workers, allow for priority access to vaccinations, and assist the facilitation of crew changes.
An array of human and business issues have arisen as a result of the crew change obstacles, ranging from welfare and safety concerns for exhausted crew to regulatory concerns as crew remain on board for long after the expiry of their contracts. While it remains to be seen what further action will be taken, the increasing global visibility of the seafarers’ plight is welcomed.
Natalie Jensen is a partner in Ince’s Dubai office. Her practice focuses on contentious and non-contentious matters in the shipping, international trade and energy sectors.