Governments around the world have violated the rights of seafarers during the Covid-19 pandemic, creating a “humanitarian crisis” in which hundreds of thousands of workers are stranded aboard ships, a UN panel said on labor rights in a landmark ruling.
Seafarers had reported physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety and illness after spending months on board the ship during the pandemic. There were also cases of people taking their own lives. Hundreds of people were denied medical care on the ground, resulting in several deaths, the UN International Labor Organization’s expert committee said.
The ILO panel warned that the failure of governments to act had put seafarers at risk of being subjected to “forced labor”.
The pandemic had exposed the essential role of seafarers in the global economy, the committee said, noting that 90% of trade, including food and vital medical supplies, moves by sea.
He expressed “deep concern” that while ports around the world managed to operate uninterruptedly during the health crisis, seafarers continued to face “extreme difficulties” when attempting to disembark and transit countries for repatriation. Seafarers are forced to work beyond their contracts, denied access to medical care and deprived of their rights to repatriation, shore vacations and annual leave, he said.
The ruling called on governments to designate seafarers as key workers “without delay.” Only 46 governments, including the UK, have done so. The panel urged governments to take steps to grant seafarers access to medical care, allow them to be repatriated when contracts end and allow crew changes.
He said governments will no longer be able to invoke “force majeure” (a clause that allows extraordinary events) to avoid complying with labor laws, 10 months after the pandemic started.
Stephen Cotton, Secretary General of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), welcomed the “unequivocal ruling and recognition by the ILO expert committee on the risk of serious and continuing forced labor of governments failing to resolve the crew change crisis and comply with international law. What is happening is unacceptable and a serious violation of fundamental human and labor rights ”.
In a joint statement, Cotton and Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said governments have been asked for months to address the crew change crisis.
“This resolution clearly establishes that it is legally and morally wrong for countries to continue to expect seafarers to work indefinitely, supplying the world with vital food, medicine and supplies, while depriving them of their fundamental rights as seafarers, as workers and as humans. This landmark ruling is a clear vindication of what the seafarers ‘and shipowners’ unions have been saying for the past nine months ”.
Ruwan Subasinghe, ITF legal director, said the ruling would increase diplomatic pressure on member states to comply with regulations under the 2006 maritime labor convention. It also opened the door for official complaints against individual ITF states, he said. .
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