General secretary Covid-19 webinar speech on maritime labour impacts 2020

5 June 2020

Speech by Mark Dickinson, general secretary Nautilus International, at a webinar on the theme of 'COVID-19 and Maritime Labour Issues: Impact and Responses' held on 5 June 2020


The Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has exposed the fragility of the global economy to an event that was unexpected and has rapidly engulfed the world and entire communities.

It has revealed how shockingly unprepared we were to cope with the challenges it brought. It has exposed the weaknesses in the governance, structure and regulation of the shipping industry.

The reaction from governments worldwide saw measures introduced to prevent the disease spreading that failed to appreciate the crucial role that the shipping industry and our seafarers play in the global economy.

Whilst punishing our seafarers, turning their ships away, denying them shore leave, closing their seafarers centres and denying them medical assistance, the very same states expected them to continue to carry on providing the essential services ghat keep supply chains open.

As people panic-bought food and essential supplies our seafarers were amongst many key workers expected to keep working to fill up our supermarket shelves again.

Seafarers, all 1.6 million of them, are amongst the many heroes in this crisis. They did not stop, even in the darkest days of the pandemic, to carry the essential goods to keep the global supply chains open.

In return they have been ostracised and treated as if they are carriers of this disease.

Seafarers unions and maritime employers, along with many international organisations, have not forgotten them.

We have been working tirelessly to ensure that the work and professional dedication of our seafarers is recognised.

To ensure that their key worker status was recognised and that they are treated equally to any other worker who is, today, on the front line.

Difficult decisions were taken to allow the international instruments that regulate safety, working and living conditions to be temporarily amended to avoid ships and seafarers being unable to maintain the global supply chain.

At the beginning of March, a request was made by many flag states, motivated by arguments of force majeure, to find a solution to the issue of the expiry of seafarer's employment agreements. Extending these by 30 days and subsequently was seen at the time as the only possible way forward. Countries were, one after another, closing their borders, airlines were being grounded, embassies closed their consular services, ports limited their services and port and flag state control officials were unable to validate or check ships certificates or the working and living conditions of seafarers.

Along with our industry partners, welfare organisations, regulatory agencies and local communities, the ITF and its affiliated trade unions have provided direct assistance to seafarers and their families and contributed to the unprecedented industry efforts to address the immediate needs of seafarers during this incredibly difficult time.

The industry has not sat still and we have jointly created very detailed Protocols that address all the valid concerns about protection, safe travel, air and port corridors, financial resources, accommodation and secure identity of seafarers.

Our aim was to ensure that seafarers can finally travel to and from their ships.

We believe these industry protocols, endorsed by the IMO and the ILO, now make force majeure redundant.

Continuing to accept force majeure runs the very real risk of providing an excuse for those who hold the responsibility for viewing seafarers as collateral damage in their fight against the virus.

We cannot ignore the thousands of calls from, by now, exhausted and fatigued seafarers – with reports of denial of medical assistance or cases of severe mental stress. These seafarers have been on board well beyond the expiry of their contracts but are still being required to continue to perform tasks that require constant professional attention.

We cannot allow commercial interests, charterers, insurers and receivers of the cargo, to put ship owners and ultimately our seafarers in the impossible situation to carry on as usual, when the safety of life at sea and protection of the marine environment is at serious risk.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is a fundamentally important instrument – it provides all the necessary protective provisions for a healthy and safe working environment for seafarers.

The MLC establishes beyond doubt certain fundamental rights and obligations, a clear responsibility on port and flag states to establish effective processes of certification, validation and verification of the Conventions provisions.

It clearly addresses among these fundamental rights: repatriation, medical assistance, shore leave, limits to hours of work and minimum hours of rest; and an ability for seafarers to register complaints when the provisions of the convention have been breached.

The MLC has been ratified by 97 member states covering 91% of the world gross ship tonnage.

However, some of the states that have ratified the convention are now breaching it, leaving seafarers lives at risk. To those states, our seafarers, are out of sight and out of mind.

Worryingly, these states have set a precedent that raises the question about the authority of the convention, if it can be so blatantly disregarded by many governments.

The information note the ILO Office published on 7th April, is a very important document and a welcome tool that has assisted in providing much needed guidance during the pandemic. However, it was created to address the immediate needs and to clarify the reason why force majeure was justified and that states could take certain alleviating and short-term measures.

Today, with many countries starting to ease restrictions our seafarers cannot be left behind. They have paid a big price already for their resilience and commitment to support all of us.

That is why the Seafarers Group calls for States to return without further delay to giving effective implementation to the provisions of the MLC.

The collective efforts of social partners, the ILO, the IMO, the many seafarer welfare organisations but, regrettably, only a few governments, have already marked the way and provided options to ensure seafarers can continue to operate ships safely. It is for the rest of the states to join forces and to acknowledge that the time has now come to pay the necessary attention to the industry and to our seafarers in return for the continued delivery of their essential services.

We cannot wait for a marine disaster to happen because overstretched and exhausted crews, seafarers whose mental wellbeing is being stretched to breaking point as several recent tragic events have grimly illustrated, are unable to perform their duties with the necessary diligence. They have not been allowed to return home for up to 15 months in some cases. We cannot allow flag states to extend, indefinitely, certificates for ships and seafarers, they have to assume their responsibilities as everyone else has done during the crisis.

It is time that flag states join us and say no more extensions. It's time that port states allowed crew changes and its time labour supply countries let their seafarers – as key workers – come home or get back to work.

We thank the ILO for hosting today's webinar. It is a golden opportunity to tell our story about the precarious situation the seafarers are in. The reports of an increase in anxiety, depression, of suicides and hunger strikes. Reports of resignations, refusal to sail, of unions backing their members to take action because it is unsafe to keep working under these conditions.

This should be an alarm bell for all of us. Seafarers are professionals but they are human beings too – they work to provide their families with a living.

They must not be deprived of the basic human rights that everyone else benefits from. They need to be allowed home now, because the line between denial of workers' rights and forced labour is a very thin one.

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