The International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are reiterating their calls to governments, national and local authorities, and other relevant stakeholders to limit the effects of the COVID-19 Omicron variant on crew changes while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of seafarers and avoiding supply chain disruptions.
In a joint statement the UN agencies list ten critical actions to address evolving challenges to international shipping and its key workers. These will minimize the adverse impact on seafarers and their families of COVID-19, including its latest variants and actions taken by authorities to contain it. They will also help to protect global trade and sustainable development while continuing to protect local communities.
While the number of seafarers that remain stranded has decreased it remains considerable. Further efforts must be made to rectify the situation and alleviate the continuing crisis. Moreover, the full impact of the Omicron variant and related response measures on crew changes is not yet clear and further ‘variants of concern’ (VOCs) may yet emerge, the agencies say.
As a result of some of the measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus many seafarers are still unable to leave their ships, remaining stranded at sea far beyond the expiration dates of their contracts and the default 11-month maximum period of continuous service on board that is in keeping with the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006).
According to the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator, which is based on data from 10 major ship managers employing some 90,000 seafarers, the percentage of seafarers on board vessels beyond their contracts decreased from 9% in July 2021 to 3.7% in December 2021.
But the share bounced back up to 4.2% by mid-January 2022. Following Omicron’s designation as a “variant of concern” (VOC), many countries quickly reimposed measures such as travel bans that have affected the world’s seafarers, most of whom are from developing countries.
To maintain recent positive trends with respect to crew changes, governments and industry, in collaboration with international organizations, need to scale up their common efforts to limit the effects of emerging variants on crew changes, while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of seafarers and global communities, the joint statement stresses. This includes facilitating vaccination, providing health document authentication and ensuring access to COVID tests and personal protective equipment (PPE).
The UN agencies emphasized how, throughout the pandemic, the world’s 1.9 million seafarers, many of whom are from developing countries, have played a vital role in ensuring the continuous flow of critical goods along supply chains, keeping the world’s shipping and trade moving.