GUY RYDER, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation. (Image: ILO)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has called for urgent and coordinated action to release the 150,000 to 200,000 seafarers trapped on board ships around the world, because of measures to contain the COVID-19 virus.

The ILO has urged governments, immigration, health and maritime authorities to work together to recognize seafarers as ‘key workers’ who ensure the flow of trade and the movement of vital medical supplies, safety equipment, food and other critical goods during the pandemic.

Referring to the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention (2006), the ILO has called on governments to adopt, without delay, all possible measures to facilitate crew changes and the repatriation of seafarers, while taking steps to minimize the risk of contagion.

More than a month after the ILO issued warnings at the end of April about the plight of seafarers refused permission to leave their ships, limited progress has been achieved and, according to the ILO, the situation is worsening by the day.

Many of those on board completed their tours of duty more than four months ago, but with contracts extended exceptionally because of the crisis, many are now reported to be experiencing mental health issues and physical exhaustion, which is reducing their ability to safely carry out their duties.

Meanwhile, the restrictions on crew changes, brought in by countries to reduce the spread of COVID-19, have meant that seafarers waiting to return to sea have lost their income.

“I urge member States to recognize seafarers as “key workers” and adopt the urgently-needed measures that will enable those who have been working hard to keep us supplied with medicines, food and other necessities, to go home and be replaced by fresh crews,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

“Forcing exhausted seafarers to continue working more than four months beyond the end of their contract is unacceptable,” he stated. “This jeopardizes their health and endangers maritime safety. Action is needed now to ensure decent work for seafarers, avoid maritime accidents and environmental disasters. We call on governments to work together to make these crew changes happen in safety.”

The call for key worker status for seafarers was underlined in a joint statement issued on May 22nd by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the ILO. This would exempt crew from travel restrictions and facilitate their joining or leaving ships.

The International Chamber of Shipping, the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Transport Workers’ Federation called attention to the urgency of the situation in a letter to the United Nation Secretary General, António Guterres on 21 May 2020.

They highlighted the risks to the mental and physical health of crews trapped on board and expressed concerns about the most vulnerable potentially resorting to self-harm and even suicide.