Effects of COVID on Human Rights of Seafarers

Effects of COVID on Human Rights of Seafarers

The problems that seafarers face because of the pandemic is not just about labor rights This is a humanitarian crisis. Here is why and what needs to be done for the solution.


The effect of the pandemic on seafarers is no joke. The travel bans and restrictions imposed by almost every country due to the pandemic have seriously affected seafarers. Even in the summer, when travel bans were largely lifted, most countries still asked for a 14-day quarantine period which made it almost impossible to change crews. The situation worsened again when the pandemic reached its second peak with autumn and winter. At one point, 400,000 seafarers were stranded on vessels, and a similar number were prevented from returning to ships, either to earn their living or to return home.

This was and still is without a doubt a human rights issue.

With a joint statement, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Global Compact, and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights called the seafarers as “collateral victims” of COVID-19-related measures imposed by governments.

According to David Hammond, Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights at Sea, a charitable incorporated organization based in the UK that aims to raise global awareness of human rights abuses at sea and deliver positive change through legal and policy development, in some cases, seafarers who had planned to undertake crew changes at ports around the world have been abandoned on the ship at sea. He also tells that cases to crew retained on board in excess of 18 months have been recorded, breaching contracts and the Maritime Labour Convention 2006.

Border and entry restrictions that don’t provide exceptions for seafarers force them to extend their voyages and cause forced labor onboard vessels.


Why does it qualify as a humanitarian crisis?

The UN has declared the crew-change issue a humanitarian crisis and didn’t do this for nothing. The crew-change issue is not just a labor rights issue. There’s more to it. For example:

  • The seafarers are effectively deprived of their liberty.
  • They are detained from seeing their families.
  • The lack of funds in the industry caused by the pandemic has affected the payment of wages, causing the lack of ability to earn a living for seafarers.

What’s the solution?

Many organizations are trying their best to solve the crisis.

For example, International Maritime Organization (IMO) has established The Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) to help resolve individual cases, often working alongside other organizations like the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

However, the ultimate solution to the problem lies in the hands of each government, since no international organization has the legitimacy to force a sovereign state to open its borders or change the rules of restrictions they apply for the pandemic.

This is why the IMO, UN, Human Rights at Sea, and many other organizations are trying to create an awareness in public but also the industry.

In their joint statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Global Compact, and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights reminded that the responsibility to respect the human rights of seafarers is not only limited to the shipping sector. It extends to the thousands of business enterprises that use the services of maritime freight transport – which accounts for almost 90 percent of world trade.

The steps these entities propose for the solution of the crisis are as follows:

  1. Conducting human rights due diligence to identify the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and of governments’ response to COVID on the human rights of seafarers and other marine personnel across their value chain, and actively using their leverage to mitigate these impacts to the greatest extent possible;
  2. Communicating to their business partners and suppliers the expectations that they will also conduct human rights due diligence and exercise their leverage in this regard;
  3. Urging government authorities to promptly implement policy and legal measures designed to alleviate the situation of seafarers, including by easing embarkment and disembarkment restrictions and expediting repatriation efforts;
  4. Joining forces with other relevant actors, including industry associations and unions such as the ICS and the ITF, to exert collective leverage within their respective spheres of influence;
  5. Engaging in meaningful dialogue and consultation with seafarers’ and other worker’s organizations, trade unions, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders in the design of relevant measures and actions, and,
  6. Supporting statements and efforts, and following the technical guidance and protocols developed by the relevant international organizations, including the IMO, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), together with industry associations and unions.

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