Seafarer humanitarian crisis in the spotlight of World Maritime Day

On 24 September, the IMO and the global maritime community come together to celebrate the annual World Maritime Day.

Illustration; Image by Navingo

The 2020 theme is Sustainable Shipping for a Sustainable Planet.

The topic is in line with the industry-wide efforts pushing to save fuel, and develop green energy sources as they work to decarbonize shipping.

However, the year has been completely overshadowed by the impact of COVID-19 on the industry and, especially on the seafarers, who are facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the industry.

More than 300,000 seafarers are currently stranded on ships, with some now having been working for more than 17 months at sea, without a break. A further 300,000 workers are unable to join ships and potentially face unemployment due to Government-imposed travel restrictions and quarantine measures in different parts of the world.

“World Maritime Day is today recognising the invaluable efforts of millions of seafarers, dockers, ferry and port workers to keep global supply chains operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, while highlighting the plight of hundreds of thousands seafarers who have been unable to return home to their families due to the crisis,” the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) said.

MUA national secretary and International Transport Workers’ Federation president Paddy Crumlin said this year had demonstrated the absolutely essential work of seafarers and dockers, who are ensuring vital medical supplies and essential household goods continue to arrive in Australia.

“This invisible workforce responsible for keeping our island nation operating now faces their own crisis, with hundreds of thousands stuck onboard ships, in some cases for up to 18 months, unable to return to their families due to border closures and a lack of government efforts to repatriate them.

“The Australian Government must do more to address this humanitarian crisis by facilitating the movement of international seafarers through the country so crew changes can once again take place.”

Crumlin added World Maritime Day also highlights the need to revitalise Australia’s shipping industry by creating a strategic fleet of Australian-flagged vessels crewed by Australian workers. This way the sector can improve its self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on foreign workforce and global shocks.

The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) echoed the sentiment, calling on the EU to be the leading force in urgent action towards social and environmental sustainability.

In an open letter, maritime sections representing seafarers, fishers, and port workers, pointed to systematic issues that are hurting the environment and endangering seafarers.

These included the use of flags of convenience, lack of climate-proof infrastructure, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

This year has really crystalised the negative effects of these issues,” said Estelle Brentnall, ETF Head of Maritime.

With a global pandemic, we saw what happens in a world where maritime traffic is guided by lowest standards possible, and where fishing inspections are few and far between. And the additional burden of increasingly severe weather events made the urgent need to act ever more clear.” 

ETF said the smart and sustainable mobility strategy, about to be addressed by the European Commission, represents an excellent opportunity for the EU to make effective change.

SGDs relevant as ever

“Sustainable Shipping for a Sustainable Planet, our theme for 2020 couldn’t be more relevant now and for years to come,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said.

“In the post-COVID world, much focus will be directed at the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all UN Member States in 2015. These goals are as relevant as ever, and shipping is essential for sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda will only be realized with a sustainable transport sector supporting world trade and facilitating the global economy.”

The IMO and the UN urged the governments to act in a coordinated manner to recognize seafarers as key workers, exempting them from travel restrictions, and implementing the recommended protocols for safe crew changes.

Earlier this week, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)  warned that the pandemic’s impact on shipping goes beyond the crew change crisis as the industry adopts a more flexible approach to meeting international rules.

Insufficient manning levels, remote surveys, the physical and mental strain of overworked seafarers overstaying their contracts for months will result in more accidents at sea, the ITF cautioned.

Related Article