Today the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has reached tremendous proportions and poses a serious challenge to the world-wide economy. The consequences have already turned into the global crisis. Breaking out at the end of last year, the virus immediately affected world trade and sea transport, which carries about 90% of all goods. So, how has the global community responded to this challenge? 

The world is sitting at home

Reducing risks for own business is perhaps the main economic task of global shipowners. During the pandemic, the number of cargo ships was significantly reduced as a number of shipping trades, some of them are completely closed. Not every ship can even enter every port. Many countries all over the world have enforced quarantine or strict medical checks of crew members in ports. First, the Chinese authorities announced the closure of their borders, but the virus is still spreading globally. Previously seafarers could easily sign off or sing on, but now many marine states prohibited the entry of all aliens. Among them are Argentina, Chile, Panama, Morocco, Mexico, as well as many EU countries. This list is only growing. Many countries do not permit any shore leave as well.

Many EU members, Hong Kong, India, Ukraine, etc. allow crew changes only for their citizens. Global crew change information updates every day and continues to undergo changes.

It must be noted, since March 17, Ukrainian border checkpoints have been closed for airlines, rail and bus services. All citizens traveling by their own transport can cross the borders freely. However, the existing restrictions do not apply to international cargo movement.

IMO made a move

Global quarantine has influenced both maritime business and crew members all over the world. Seamen planning to sing off at the end of February or March have to stay on board for extra months, since many shipowners do not permit crew change in such conditions.

IMO expressed concern about shipping destiny and recommended that governments of the maritime countries, in particular, facilitate the fleet work and not break the supply chain in order to avoid a shortage of goods. The IMO said that global fleet and ports should remain fully “workable” for this, and the authorities should work with the relevant structures to further simplify international maritime trade, port operations and crew changes.

The Secretary General has been made aware of a number of concerns regarding seamen’ trainings and other documents due to COVID-19.

The actions taken global community as a result of the coronavirus are a great challenge for every marine country to allow the continued training of seafarers, revalidate certifications, including medical certifications etc. Also, issuing Administrations are encouraged to take a pragmatic and practical approach with regard to the extension of all certificates and endorsements, as strictly necessary, and to notify ships, seafarers and relevant Administrations accordingly.

In accordance with IMO, some states, including Ukraine, have decided to extend all maritime documents for three months for those seafarers who are still on board.

“The Maritime Administration realizes this global situation regarding the outbreak of coronavirus and puts the protection of Ukrainian seafarers first.” The Maritime Administration of Ukraine stated.

Violation of international conventions 

About 1.5 million seafarers keep the global merchant fleet, delivering food, medicines, fuel or equipment to the countries where authorities try to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some organizations and associations such as Human Rights at Sea and ICS have given to understand, that the closure of borders and quarantine measures do not permit crew changes in accordance with employment contracts and international conventions including the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC-2006). The Convention establishes minimum requirements for almost all aspects of work for seafarers, for example, conditions of employment, hours of work and rest, repatriation, shore leave, etc.

Secretary General of ICS Guy Platten stated: “The issue of crew changes has the potential to become a massive problem for the global economy if governments do not address our concerns.” 

General Secretary of ITF Stephen Cotton agreed with him and moved on: “The maritime industry is calling on governments to show respect for seafarers and coordinate a global strategy with key stakeholders, including major airlines, to ease restrictions and facilitate the changeover of ships’ crews. The current deadlock not only threatens seafarers’ personal health and wellbeing, but also increases the risk of marine accidents and jeopardises the global supply chains that are integral to responding to, and eventually overcoming, this pandemic. We call for immediate and coordinated global action to safely resume crew changes and the repatriation of seafarers in a manner that protects the health and safety, and ultimately the lives of seafarers.”

Help & Support

Perhaps the main problem of 2020 cannot leave the maritime community indifferent. Supporting seafarers who remained on board or ashore due to the pandemic, ICS issued the Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers in order to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. 

ISWAN launched a video guidance on managing the mental health of seafarers during COVID-19 pandemic with counselling psychologist Dr Kate Thompson. She provides advice about staying mentally safe and well while on board and ashore.

The information note was released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), addresses maritime labour issues and coronavirus. The note contains an abstract from MLC-2006, the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR), the recommendations published by IMO and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding shipping during the pandemic.

The International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) supported by MTWTU and ITF launched the #ISupplyTheWorld campaign in social media. The main aim is spreading the message of maritime workers’ efforts which they are undertaking during the pandemic.

The Mission to Seafarers provides help and support to the 1.5 million crew members who face danger every day to keep our global economy afloat.

Also, for all questions, including about coronavirus, seafarers and their families may contact SeafarerHelp, as a free, confidential, multilingual helpline, working 24/7, 365 days a year.