28 Sep 2020 | 

On September 21st during an extraordinary session of the Maritime Safety Committee the IMO again passed a resolution calling on all governments to take urgent action to resolve the humanitarian and safety crisis faced by the international shipping community.

The IMO has been using the UN’s annual general assembly as a new opportunity to call attention to the need for further action to address the barriers the pandemic created.

Then on September 24th, on World Maritime Day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres renewed his call on Governments to designate seafarers as “key workers”.

He said that “I remain very concerned about the growing humanitarian and safety crisis facing hundreds of thousands of these indispensable workers. Despite the unprecedented conditions brought about by the pandemic, seafarers have continued to tirelessly support the often invisible global logistics chain. Physically and mentally exhausted, away from their families and loved ones, their time at sea has now been extended far beyond the standards stipulated in international conventions, with some tours of duty now stretching more than 17 months. Fatigued seafarers cannot operate indefinitely, and disruptions to international shipping would have devastating consequences”.

UN agencies have convened a meeting during the UN General Assembly Week to call for urgent action to address the humanitarian, economic and safety crisis in the world’s shipping industry.

Executives from Unilever and Maersk and transport ministers from Europe, North America, Africa and ASEAN countries are taking part. All have expressed concern about breaches of the Maritime Labour Convention, which could have implications for global supply chains.

In a letter to the UN Secretary-General the CEOs of 30 Consumer Goods Forum companies, including Unilever and Danone, called on governments to designate seafarers as “key workers”, thus granting them exemptions from government-imposed travel restrictions and quarantine measures.

Other signatories included Carrefour SA, food manufacturer Mondelez International and drinks manufacturer Heineken NV. They all signed an open letter calling for measures to allow more crew changes at ports, ensure the safety of overworked seafarers and make sure supply chains don’t use forced labour.

Unilever Chief Supply Chain Officer Marc Engel told the virtual meeting that seafarers are essential workers that keep global supply chains functioning.

Without them, there are no masks, no covid tests, no hand sanitisers, or other essential goods. There is no food, there is no medicine. These supply chains are on the verge of serious disruption.”

“We are coming to a tipping point if we don’t resolve the issue of crew changes,” Marc Engel, chief supply chain officer at Unilever, which spearheaded the letter, said in an interview. “There’s a huge risk that the global supply chain will start failing. It’s an inadvertent situation of forced labour because these seafarers are stuck on these ships. It’s a human rights issue.”

He asked that governments “step in and organise the facilitation of crew changes, and work together with the shipping industry on a way through this standstill that recognises seafarers’ rights and averts the risk of widespread disruption to the global economy”

Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation acknowledge the leadership of Unilever and others for taking responsibility for the health and wellbeing of seafarers in their supply chains and calling on governments to wake up to this escalating crisis. He claimed that “the situation is bordering on or amounts to forced labour, and all companies, from the bottom to the top of global supply chains, have a responsibility to use their leverage to demand urgent government intervention to end this crisis”.

ILO Director General Guy Ryder called on governments to implement urgent and pragmatic solutions that fully respect seafarers’ rights. “Seafarers are exhausted and simply cannot continue working on board indefinitely. I hope we do not need to wait for a major disruption of supply chains or an environmental disaster to stir action to effectively tackle this crisis.”

From October 1st the Australian Maritime Safety Authority will not accept extensions of service without taking leave beyond 14 months. Panama has enforced similar measures.

Sturla Henriksen, Special Advisor, Ocean at the UN Global Compact explains: “As the crisis spans over labour, immigration, health, and trade, it really requires a cross-governmental effort”.

Far from the problem getting nearer a solution, it seems to be getting worse. More than 120 countries or territories have stopped or limited access for ships to conduct seafarer changes in a bid to prevent the spread of Covid-19

Concern is now being expressed among the significant consumer groups that shipping companies and the industry benefit from a complicated and fragmented system, with every ship is connected to a handful of separate entities, such as the owner, its operator, a staffing agency that recruits seafarers, a charterer. As Richard Meade, managing editor of Lloyd’s List, has observed, that makes it hard to hold a single entity accountable, and easy to deny blame for any one entity in the ship’s complex financial affairs.

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