Governments around the world have breached the rights of seafarers during the Covid-19 pandemic, creating a “humanitarian crisis” in which hundreds of thousands of workers are stranded onboard ships, said the UN’s International Labour Organization’s committee of experts. The ILO panel warned that a lack of action by governments had risked seafarers being subjected to “forced labour”.
Seafarers had reported physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety and sickness after spending months on board ship during the pandemic. Hundreds of people were denied medical care ashore, resulting in deaths.
The pandemic had laid bare the essential role of seafarers in the world economy, the committee said, noting that 90% of trade, including food and vital medical supplies, is moved by sea. It expressed “deep concern” that while ports around the world managed to operate uninterrupted during the health crisis, seafarers continued to face “extreme difficulties” in trying to disembark and transit through countries for repatriation.
Seafarers were being forced to work beyond their contracts, denied access to medical care and deprived of their rights to repatriation, shore leave and annual leave, it said. The panel called on governments to take action to grant seafarers access to medical attention, to enable them to be repatriated when contracts are finished and to allow crew changes.
Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), welcomed the “unequivocal ruling and recognition from the ILO committee of experts of the serious and ongoing forced labour risk of governments’ failure to resolve the crew change crisis and comply with international law. What is happening is unacceptable and a serious violation of fundamental human and labour rights.”
“This ruling clearly sets out that it is both legally and morally wrong for countries to continue to expect seafarers to work indefinitely, supplying the world with food, medicine and vital supplies, while depriving them of their fundamental rights as seafarers, as workers, and as humans. This landmark ruling is a clear vindication of what seafarers’ unions and shipowners have been saying for the past nine months.”