Today is the International Day of the Seafarer, but this year it is not being taken as an opportunity for celebration as thousands of seafarers remain trapped on their ships by COVID-19 restrictions.
“Today is not a day for celebration,” said the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), whose member unions represent 1.4 million of the world’s seafarers. “Today is a day for somber reflection on how seafarers continue to be let down when they deserve so much more.”
In one potentially promising development, the U.K. government marked the occasion by announcing it will host the first international summit on the impact of COVID-19 on crew changes. To be held next month, it will bringg together UN, political and business leaders from across the globe.
Led by U.K. Maritime Minister Kelly Tolhurst, the event will take place virtually and will be an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on the global shipping industry, and what governments and industry must do to protect the welfare of crew workers around the world.
In a special address, Kitack Lim, Secretary General of the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization, is expected to highlight the humanitarian need to safeguard workers across the seas and states’ duties to repatriate workers swiftly.
It is now estimated there are more than 1.2 million seafarers at sea at any one time and currently 200,000 seafarers due to change over, including up to 2,000 from the U.K.
“Seafarers have worked tirelessly during this pandemic to ensure people across the globe can access the essential food, medicine and supplies we all need, but thousands have been left with no way of coming ashore when faced with border restrictions,” said U.K. Maritime Minister Kelly Tolhurst.
To ensure their swift repatriation, and to safeguard workers’ mental health, the Maritime Minister wrote to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the International Labor Organisation and the World Health Organization at the start of the outbreak on 23 March pressing that all states follow the U.K/’s work in repatriating workers regardless of their nationality or employment.
The U.K. has remained open for seafarers to come and either stay on vessels, go ashore, take shore leave or be repatriated, abiding by Public Health England requirements and social distancing.
Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, said:
“We welcome the announcement to hold a virtual summit on this critical crew change issue. The fragile supply chain and global trade is now at threat of logjam due to government inaction and bureaucracy. Government leaders must cut through the bureaucracy, lift the continuing imposition of travel restrictions on these key workers and focus on this issue now.
“The solutions do not need money; they do not even need complicated negotiations, this is simple. The leadership provided by the UK to cut through this red tape is just the sort of initiative that is needed to free the thousands of seafarers who are trapped onboard ships across the world.
“This meeting, set up by the U.K. Maritime Minister, is a unique collaboration between the U.K. government, UN through the IMO, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and key international trade association to help all countries pull together to ensure that crew workers – regardless of nationality – are repatriated as swiftly as possible.”