Plea to UN agencies: Recognize seafarers as international key workers

Written by Nick Blenkey
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UN Photo/John Isaac

As coronavirus-related travel and other restrictions increase, the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have written a joint open letter to the heads of four United Nations agencies seeking action to facilitate ship crew changes.

Signed by ICS Secretary General Guy Platten and ITF Secretary General Stephen Cotton, the letter is addressed to the Director General of the International Labor Organization (ILO); the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO); the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); and the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Following is the text of the letter:

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold it is vital that all governments keep maritime trade moving by continuing to allow commercial ships access to ports worldwide and by facilitating the movement and rapid changeover of ships’ crews.

We are writing on behalf of the International Chamber Shipping (ICS), which represents the world’s national shipowners’ associations and over 80% of the world’s merchant shipping tonnage, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which speaks on behalf of approximately two million seafarers who operate the world’s internationally-trading commercial ships.

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, it is important for the world’s governments to fully understand that around 90% of global trade is transported by commercial shipping, which moves the world’s food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components – including vital medical supplies and many products sold in supermarkets, items that are necessary (due to complex supply chains) for the preservation of many jobs in manufacturing – without which modern society simply cannot function.

In this time of global crisis, it is more important than ever to keep supply chains open and maritime trade and transport moving.

In particular, this means keeping the world’s ports open for calls by visiting commercial ships, and facilitating crew changes and the movement of ships’ crews with as few obstacles as possible.

Every month, around 100,000 seafarers need to be changed over from the ships which they operate in order to comply with relevant international maritime regulations, governing safe working hours and crew welfare, so that they can continue to transport global trade safely.

We therefore wish to emphasize the vital need for the world’s professional merchant seafarers to be granted appropriate exemptions from any national travel restrictions, when joining or leaving their ships, in order to keep the world’s maritime supply chains functioning.

In view of their vital role during the global pandemic, we suggest that professional seafarers, regardless of nationality, should be treated as any other international “key workers,” such as airline crew and medical personnel. As such, they should be afforded special consideration and, notwithstanding the need to comply with emergency health protocols, treated with pragmatism and understanding when seeking to travel to and from their ships.

We therefore call on your organizations to highlight the critical importance of this issue with the governments of your member states.

We request, as a matter of urgency, that this topic be added to the agenda of appropriate high level meetings, and that national authorities in your organizations’ member states should be encouraged to engage immediately with their national shipowners’ association and national seafarers’ union, in order to find rapid solutions to this serious problem which otherwise risks impeding global efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic.


Crew changes are not the only way in which the restrictions are hitting shipping. Earlier this week, INTERTANKO spelled out some of the ways the tanker industry is being affected. Many of them also apply to other industry sectors.

Control measures put in place to combat the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus have hit the tanker industry in four areas:

The ability to relieve crews from ships; The ability to arrange SIRE and CDI inspections; The ability to complete repairs and supply spares; and The issuance of statutory and Class certification.

  • The inability for seafarers to travel and join ships is something that affects the entire shipping industry, notes INTERTANKO. The impact on families, the mental welfare of seafarers and issues related to long-term fatigue are very real concerns. For tankers there is the additional impact upon the crew matrix and the breaching of statutory limits on crew trip length.
  • The tanker industry is reliant on the seamless implementation of vetting and inspection regimes administered by OCIMF and CDI. However, ships are unable to undertake SIRE and CDI inspections due to the inability of inspectors being able to travel to ships. This means that many tankers are unable to maintain their regular (six-monthly) inspection schedules.
  • Tankers are complex pieces of machinery and rely on maintenance from specialized technicians joining ships from manufacturers and spare part providers. With increasing travel restrictions, those specialists and spare parts are hard to come by.
  • Flag and Class inspectors are being prevented from joining ships and therefore are unable to issue certificates.

In light of these issues, INTERTANKO has advised its Members to take the following steps:

  • Assume that the problems will last for several months.
  • Plan ahead and undertake a SIRE / CDI inspection at the earliest opportunity, including on loading or idle if possible.
  • Inform charterers of any cancellation of inspection.
  • Remind charterers that inspection reports are maintained on the OCIMF and CDI systems for periods of 12 months or longer from the date of receipt and remain valid. Time restrictions on their validity are the choice of individual charterers.

In order to provide objective evidence that these steps are being followed, INTERTANKO is advising its members to keep detailed records of all refusals/cancellations of inspections and any problems related to travel for seafarers, superintendents, inspectors and repair technicians.

Among other things, INTERTANKO has also drafted chartering provisions to address COVID-19 for both time and spot fixtures.

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