New UN initiative urges businesses to protect seafarers’ rights

A wide-ranging human rights checklist has been issued to business enterprises engaged with the maritime industry to protect seafarers stranded on ships due to new COVID-19 variants and government-imposed travel restrictions.

The tool is a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact, the UN Human Rights Office, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

As explained, The Human Rights Due Diligence Tool for cargo owners and charterers has been issued amid concerns that the number of crew stranded working beyond their contracts at sea by COVID-19 restrictions could surge from the current level of 200,000, potentially returning to the peak of 400,000 seafarers at the height of the crew change crisis in September 2020.

UN agencies hope the new guidance will help ensure that the working conditions and human rights of seafarers are respected and comply with international standards.

The new guidance aims to ensure that seafarers have their rights safeguarded in areas such as physical and mental health, access to family life and freedom of movement. The agencies have expressed concern at reports of seafarers working beyond the 11-month maximum limit of service on board set out by the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

The UN agencies have also expressed strong concern at reports that companies engaged in international trade are avoiding chartering vessels where a crew change is due, with some demanding ‘no crew change’ clauses in charter party agreements, preventing needed crew changeovers and adding further pressure on the maritime industry.

The new human rights tool complements current industry-led collective action, such as the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing, which has been signed by more than 750 companies. 

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The tool aims to provide guidance and a checklist for cargo owners, charterers and logistics providers to conduct human rights due diligence across their supply chains to identify, prevent, mitigate and address adverse human rights impacts for seafarers impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of global supply chains as seafarers continue to endure tremendous, and yet largely invisible, hardship and suffering…The mental and physical wellbeing of seafarers must be a priority and this tool is an important step in building awareness of how to address human rights abuses in the maritime sector,” Sanda Ojiambo, Executive Director and CEO of the UN Global Compact said.

“This tool is an important step forward, providing a practical approach for cargo owners, charterers and logistic providers to consider the human rights of seafarers and ensure they are put first and foremost as they work to deliver the goods that people need and want,” Kitack Lim, IMO Secretary General, noted.

“The recent Suez Canal incident has reminded governments and the markets just how important global shipping is to the supply chains. Seafarers are continuing to work to maintain global trade through exceptional circumstances, and the Suez incident has only exacerbated the already dire crew change crisis. Seafarers must not be forgotten now the canal is open again, and we call on businesses to urgently adopt these important recommendations,” Guy Platten, International Chamber of Shipping Secretary General, pointed out.

“Responsible companies in today’s world want to understand how they or partners in their supply chains might be violating human rights, even inadvertently. That’s why in the midst of the crew change crisis, the launch of this tool couldn’t be more timely. It spells out exactly the questions that companies need to ask their suppliers or charterers about what’s happening to seafarers in their supply chains, and provides worker-led pathways for monitoring and enforcement to remedy any violations or mistreatment,” Stephen Cotton, International Transport Workers’ Federation General Secretary, said.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, the International Chamber of Shipping, the Institute for Human Rights and Business, the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, and the OECD actively contributed to the development of the tool. The tool is supported by the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, the World Economic Forum, the Global Maritime Forum, the Ethical Trading Initiative, and The Consumer Goods Forum, that welcome this key initiative in addressing the Covid-19 crew change crisis.

“We urge business to use this tool to help improve the working conditions for seafarers and underpin a more sustainable shipping industry,” Peter McAllister, Ethical Trading Initiative Executive Director, stressed.