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UN and partners press for seafarers to be designated ‘key workers’ during COVID pandemic

Seafarers are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, playing an essential role in maintaining the flow of vital goods, such as food and medical supplies.
Seafarers are on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, playing an essential role in maintaining the flow of vital goods, such as food and medical supplies.

UN and partners press for seafarers to be designated ‘key workers’ during COVID pandemic

Economic Development

The UN Secretary-General has again appealed for governments to act on behalf of hundreds of thousands of seafarers and other maritime workers stuck at sea for endless months, in some cases more than a year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

António Guterres on Thursday pressed authorities to formally designate these personnel as “key workers” to facilitate safe crew changes, allowing fatigued seafarers to be repatriated and replaced by colleagues who are awaiting deployment. 

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“Despite the unprecedented conditions brought about by the pandemic, seafarers have continued to tirelessly support the often invisible global logistics chain”, the UN chief said, in his message for World Maritime Day, observed annually on 24 September.  

This year, the focus is on ‘Sustainable Shipping for a Sustainable Planet’ which underlines how the industry will play a central role in both post-pandemic recovery and future economic growth.  

Seafarers critical to global trade 

As Mr. Guterres pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the professionalism and sacrifice of the more than one million men and women who serve in the world’s merchant fleet. 

Seafarers play a critical role in shipping, which accounts for the movement of more than 80 per cent of global trade including food, basic goods and vital medical supplies needed during the pandemic. 

The UN and partners estimate that more than 300,000 members of this hidden workforce currently are trapped at sea due to travel restrictions, border closures and other measures implemented by governments to contain COVID-19 spread.  

They said the situation is unfolding into an urgent humanitarian, safety and economic crisis. 

‘The show had to go on’ 

Captain Hedi Marzougui was commanding a merchant vessel in the Far East when the pandemic broke out. Life on board immediately became difficult.   Crew changes, shore leaves and medical leaves were suspended, and it was hard to get vital supplies or technical support to the ship. 

“Port nations changed regulations on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Severe strains began to show amongst my crew almost immediately,” he said, speaking at a virtual event to mark World Maritime Day, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. 

“Not knowing when, or if, we would be returning home took a severe mental toll on my crew and myself. We felt we were being treated as second-class citizens, with no input or control on our lives. However, even under these stressing conditions, the show had to go on.” 

‘Collateral victims’ of the pandemic? 

For some seafarers, the show appears to have no end.  The Secretary-General noted that some tours of duty have now stretched more than 17 months: far beyond international standards. 

Besides renewing his appeal for Governments to declare seafarers as essential workers, Mr. Guterres urged authorities to implement protocols developed by UN agencies, alongside the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, that would facilitate crew rotations.  

The protocols also call for no new work extensions beyond 11 months, diverting vessels to ports where crew changes can take place, and recognition of internationally-designated seafarers’ documents. 

Kitack Lim, Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and a former seafarer himself, stressed that it is high time for action.  “We all depend on seafarers,” he said. “They should not be the collateral victims of the pandemic.”  

‘Catastrophic’ impacts at sea and on land 

The head of the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that failure to resolve the crisis would not only be “catastrophic” for seafarers and compromise maritime safety, it could potentially lead to a breakdown of global supply chains.  

 “We have a plan of action, and I think our next steps must simply be… to increase the pressures on governments so that the perfectly feasible action is taken”, said Guy Ryder, the ILO Director-General. 

He reported that Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) from 30 major companies wrote to the Secretary-General this week, requesting action. 

Some 12,000  companies worldwide have joined the UN Global Compact, which supports businesses in aligning their operations with universal principles on human rights, labour, the environment and ending corruption.  

CEO and Executive Director Sanda Ojiambo pressed for political action, stating that without seafarers, global supply chains would simply cease functioning. 

“Truly, for the sake of men and women like Captain Marzougui and his crew, and in the interest of safe and orderly shipping and trade, let us all make our national authorities know that we stand with the seafarers,” she said.