UN tells governments to recognise seafarers and aircrew as “key workers”
Main image
Maersk ULCV
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor-in-chief of International Employment Lawyer

To support the global economic recovery from the ongoing impact of the covid-19 crisis, governments should designate seafarers and aircrew as key workers and give them priority access to coronavirus vaccines, according to the heads of five UN organisations.

In a joint statement, the heads of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Organization for Migration, and the World Health Organization (WHO) said maritime and air transport workers are required to travel across borders and may need to present proof of vaccination as a condition for entry in some countries.

“For shipping and air transport to continue to operate safely, the safe cross-border movement of seafarers and aircrew must be facilitated. We reiterate our call upon countries that have not done so to designate seafarers and aircrew as key workers,” said the joint statement.

“We also call on governments to identify and prepare for the challenges of covid-19 vaccination of seafarers and aircrew, particularly for seafarers spending long periods away from their home country,” the statement continued.

The move follows a call in January from more than 300 large employers, including AP Moller-Maersk, BP, Unilever, and Rio Tinto, urging governments to treat merchant sailors as key workers so they can return to their home countries.

More than 90% of global trade by volume is moved by sea, including food and medical supplies. However, travel restrictions imposed by governments during the pandemic bars the more than 1 million seafarers working aboard approximately 60,000 cargo vessels worldwide from disembarking at ports around the globe.

Based on industry analysis, approximately 200,000 seafarers are currently stranded onboard commercial vessels long past the expiry of their contracts and unable to be repatriated. A similar number are waiting to join ships but are unable to do so.

Ship operators’ inability to conduct crew changes has been described by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) as the single greatest operational challenge confronting the shipping industry since the Second World War.

Although the number of seafarers requiring repatriation has roughly halved since September 2020, the situation is still considered a “humanitarian crisis” and there is increasing evidence of depression and suicide among sailors left adrift at sea.

“By granting stranded seafarers key worker status, and by prioritising vaccine allocation for transport crew, we can prevent a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis,” said the World Economic Forum’s head of supply chain and transport, Margi Van Gogh.

The crisis is still ongoing, and we will not let up our efforts. Governments will not be able to vaccinate their citizens without the shipping industry or, most importantly, our seafarers

In December 2020, the ILO called on governments to recognise seafarers as key workers “without delay” as countries had failed to protect sailors’ rights.

Under the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention, the maximum continuous period a seafarer should serve on board a vessel, without leave, is 11 months. To date, only 55 countries have heeded the ILO’s call.

In a statement earlier this month, Guy Platten, secretary-general of the ICS, said the crew change crisis was far from over: “There is great concern over the increased travel restrictions being imposed by governments in response to new variants.

“Seafarers must be designated as key workers. The crisis is still ongoing, and we will not let up our efforts. Governments will not be able to vaccinate their citizens without the shipping industry or, most importantly, our seafarers.”

In agreement, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said issues around vaccination needed to be resolved: “The maritime sector has continued to deliver the vital supplies that people need. Seafarers have worked tirelessly, at the heart of this trade, to keep goods flowing.

“Despite difficulties with port access, repatriation, crew changes, and more, there can be no denying that seafarers have gone beyond the call of duty. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been forced to work long beyond their contracted time.”

Air transport carries approximately 35% of world trade by value. Last year saw nearly 46,400 special cargo flights transport 1.5 million tonnes of cargo, mostly medical equipment, to areas in need during the height of the pandemic response

The severe downturn in air traffic caused by covid-19 may lead to a loss of nearly 5 million aviation jobs around the globe, according to industry figures released last September.

“It is absolutely incumbent on governments to do whatever they can to help the sector get back on its feet so we can bring back those jobs and that economic activity. And this must go beyond schemes to support employment,”  said Michael Gill, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group.

“Passengers and businesses need certainty around travel – not to be subject to random quarantine declarations and constantly changing lists of acceptable and unacceptable destinations.”