Supporting seafarers on the frontline of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has put seafarers around the world in precarious situations. Travel restrictions mean some cannot leave their ships, be repatriated home, or even get urgent medical assistance. Other seafarers have seen their contracts unilaterally terminated or have been quarantined on board ships for more than 14 days, without getting paid.
A large number of seafarers, as well as their spouses and family members, have reached out to IMO to share their concerns about a variety of difficult situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
IMO has established an internal team 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). Since the beginning of the crisis, this dedicated team works around the clock – contacting representatives from national governments, NGOs, trade unions or relevant associations, or orienting seafarers towards the right organisation, to find solutions.
Here are examples where IMO intervention made a difference for seafarers around the globe.
Critically ill seafarer rescued following swift intervention from UN agencies
When a 45-year-old Russian seafarer aboard a large cargo ship began to show signs of suffering a stroke, in mid-April, the ship’s captain was immediately alerted.
The next day, the seafarer’s condition worsened. He seemed confused, his speech was laborious, he had pain under the left shoulder and his left arm and leg were paralysed. The captain knew he needed to act – and fast.
Global Voyager Assistance, a remote medical assistance provider, confirmed the stroke diagnosis. But the ship was more than 220 km from the nearest port, and the port authorities rejected initial appeals for emergency medical assistance, due to COVID-19 restrictions in place. Despite repeated requests from the vessel’s captain, the seafarer’s national trade union and that of the country the ship was headed for, the ship could not enter port.
After several hours of intense discussions, the ship initially received confirmation that the vessel could enter port for the medical transfer to take place.
However, that decision was reversed just six hours before the ship was due to arrive, and the captain was advised to set course for another port, in a different country, over 600 km away.
The clock was ticking. The captain insisted and made a further request to obtain medical evacuation for the seafarer, but that second attempt was also rejected by the authorities, including immigration and a local COVID-19 Task Force – again due to COVID-19 restrictions.
UN agencies step in
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) was then notified. It called on two UN agencies, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), to intervene urgently at government level to ensure international conventions were respected so the seafarer could receive the immediate medical attention that his life depended on.
IMO and ILO quickly took action. IMO contacted representatives from the national government while ILO offered to prepare an intervention letter. As a result, the medical evacuation was finally authorised and a police vessel was dispatched to evacuate the seafarer.
The president of the seafarer’s national union said: “After personally working on this case for over 48 hours, we are relieved our appeals were heard and our member was finally granted access to the medical treatment that he is entitled to. Our thoughts are now focused on [his] health, and we extend the best wishes of maritime unions worldwide to him and his family for his speedy recovery.”
“We want to sincerely thank [the local union] and the ITF for their assistance, and the ILO and IMO for their urgent intervention. Without their support we might not have succeeded in securing the lifesaving emergency evacuation and medical care”, he added.
IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim has made several calls for seafarers to be designated “key workers” in the current crisis, and for severe transport restrictions not to be applied. “Seafarers’ own health and welfare are as important as those of anyone else,” he said.
A stranded seafarer reunited with her family following help from IMO
A British seafarer was desperate to be reunited with her family after months working on a passenger ship in the Pacific. Her vulnerable relatives back home needed her support in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she was determined to be by their side.
But her plan to fly home mid-March was derailed. Immigration authorities of the port State initially denied permission to travel, because the rules had been changed with almost no notice. The seafarer was stuck on the ship at anchor with no means of returning home.
On 31 March, she emailed a plea for help to IMO. “As I am sure is the case for so many other seafarers right now, I am so desperate to get home. My parents and grandmother are vulnerable and I cannot think about anything else”, she said. The seafarer added that her mental health was seriously affected, and she feared the situation would also impact her ability to perform her duties as a bridge officer.
IMO immediately contacted the port State and seafarer State and informed the relevant NGOs. Those efforts helped resolve the case. Thanks to the efficient cooperation between the local seafarer’s union and the port State, the seafarer was allowed to fly home on 12 April.
In a message sent to IMO the next day, she thanked the Organization and the port State for ensuring she could be reunited with her family. “I am relieved and overjoyed to be back! Thank you so much for all your help and support. I am also very grateful to [the port State] for allowing me to travel, the whole process was very well managed and controlled”, she said.
Ensuring a safe working environment for seafarers amid the COVID-19 pandemic
In late March, the Master and crew of a bulk carrier, all of Indian nationality, grew increasingly worried that unloading cargo would expose them to considerable risks of COVID-19 infection.
A lack of a floating crane at an Asian port meant that the ship personnel were faced with taking 60 stevedores on board for three weeks without any screening on COVID-19 symptoms. These stevedores would be living in makeshift tents on the vessel’s decks to discharge a cargo of soybeans.
“Ship’s crew is very concerned about exposure to shore personnel during cargo operations, as it is impossible to maintain total isolation”, the shipmaster and 19 crew members said in a letter transferred to IMO on 1 April.
IMO immediately contacted ITF and ICS. The flag State was invited to mediate a solution with the Master and the shipowner, and an agreement was reached on 7 April. The ship was relocated to a different anchorage and the cargo was fully and safely discharged.