Seafarers have been the unsung heroes of this pandemic, as the world relies on them to transport more than 80% of trade by volume, including vital food and medical goods, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods across the globe. They have also been collateral victims of the crisis, as travel restrictions have left tens of thousands of them stranded on ships, or unable to join ships.
The difficulties surrounding repatriation and crew changes also have a major impact on the shipping industry and have been identified as a priority issue, with IMO and other organizations urging governments to intervene. The matter has been taken up by the UN Secretary-General, who expressed his concern about the growing humanitarian and safety crisis facing seafarers around the world, and called on all countries to formally designate seafarers and other marine personnel as “key workers” and ensure crew changeovers can safely take place. Mr. Guterres reiterated this call in his
World Maritime Day message on 24 September 2020.
While IMO is encouraged by the progress made in many countries to designate seafarers as key workers and facilitate crew changes and repatriation, the Organization remains very concerned about the many countries where restrictions are still in place for seafarers. We are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis and a real safety issue – we cannot expect seafarers currently on ships to stay at sea forever. Many have already been on tours of duty significantly longer than the 11 months agreed by ILO as the maximum length of seafarers’ contracts. It is the responsibility of governments to ensure seafarers and ships can continue moving, to enable the world to overcome and recover from the pandemic and keep the global economy afloat.
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about crew changes and repatriation of seafarers.
1. Why is it so difficult for seafarers to go home?
Many governments around the world have tentatively begun to reopen their international seaports and airports albeit with varying quarantine, vaccination and testing requirements. However, many others have reaffirmed their commitment to impose travel restrictions to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a result, the ability of seafarers to travel between the ships that constitute their workplace, and their country of residence continues, in many places, to be severely curtailed.
The very nature of international shipping makes it necessary for significant numbers of seafarers to travel by plane to and from ships every month, as their ports of departure or arrival may be thousands of kilometres away from their homes. Many are flown to their departure ports to embark on ships where they live and work for several weeks or months at a time. Once they reach their destination, they often need to be repatriated by aircraft.
COVID-19-related restrictions and closures continue to hamper this process. The limited availability of commercial flights significantly reduces travel options for seafarers, and results in higher ticket prices for ship operators and manning agents, which further exacerbates the challenges of conducting crew changes and repatriating seafarers. Border closures mean some are unable to transit through foreign countries, or to travel to airports to catch their flights home. The situation is also further complicated by difficulties in obtaining visas or travel permits to transit countries or even to enter their countries of residence. Quarantine requirements are also hindering travel.
Additionally, significant numbers of seafarers are still unable to go home because they cannot be replaced by much-needed relief crews. Due to the aforementioned travel restrictions, many seafarers are unable to travel abroad to embark on ships, making crew changes difficult – or impossible. As a result, seafarers report that their contracts are extended for months beyond their original end date, forcing them to stay on board instead of being reunited with their families.
This has resulted in thousands of seafarers being stranded on ships with no prospect of being repatriated. Repeated extensions of their contracts have now reached a level where this cannot be sustained without serious consequences for the health of seafarers and consequentially for the safety of the ships they operate.
There is also an oft-forgotten corollary to the crew change crisis, which is the financial impact on seafarers who are, to all intents and purposes, 'stranded at home'. Unable to work at sea and with limited or no opportunities ashore, thousands of seafarers and their families are experiencing severe financial hardship, as ongoing travel restrictions and other COVID-19-related policies are preventing them from taking up new crew employment contracts.
2. How many seafarers are in this situation?
As of July 2021, it is estimated that some 250,000 seafarers remain on board commercial vessels, unable to be repatriated and past the expiry of their contracts. A similar number of seafarers urgently need to join ships to replace them.
On any given day, nearly one million seafarers are working on some 60,000 large cargo vessels worldwide.
3. Why are crew changes so important?
Crew changes are vital to prevent fatigue and protect seafarers’ health, safety and wellbeing – thereby ensuring the safe operation of maritime trade. They cannot be postponed indefinitely.
The duration of seafarers’ contracts varies, but they typically work between four and six months on ships, followed by a period of leave. When at sea, they often work 10-12 hours shifts, seven days a week – performing tasks that require constant professional attention.
Seafarers spending extended periods onboard are more at risk of adverse health effects, including physical and mental health issues. Thousands of seafarers stranded on board ships have already expressed their exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety depression and mental stress. And a physically and mentally fatigued seafarer has a much higher risk of becoming involved in an incident which causes a marine casualty.
Crew changes are essential to comply with international maritime regulations for safety, crew health and welfare, and employment. ILO’s 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) states that the maximum continuous period that a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months. This period may be exceeded in situations of “force majeure”, but any extension must be accompanied by appropriate safeguards to avoid any abuse and protect seafarers’ rights. According to ILO, hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been required to remain on board beyond the 11-month maximum period. In some instances, seafarers have not been able to go home for 18 months.
4. What is the situation regarding access to medical care for seafarers?
There have been numerous cases of seafarers being denied permission to go ashore to receive urgent medical care, despite presenting symptoms that were not related to COVID-19.
For example, a 45-year-old Russian seafarer who was suffering a stroke was initially refused permission to enter a foreign port to receive the live-saving treatment he desperately needed. The medical evacuation was finally authorised after UN agencies stepped in. (Click here for more details on this story).
In some cases, even fully vaccinated seafarers have been refused permission to disembark, despite all the crew testing negative for the disease.
Examples like that of the 45-year old Russian create significant concerns for seafarers, who worry they may not get the medical care they need in case they become ill, from COVID-19 or from other diseases. The uncertainty is also extremely distressing for loved ones ashore, demoralising for other members of the crew when a colleague's health is on the line, frustrating for Masters' who have a duty of care but are essentially powerless to intervene, and extremely time-consuming for operations staff ashore who attempt to communicate with a myriad of ships agents and various other parties ashore, in order to arrange medical evacuation.
In addition, many seafarers have serious problems in obtaining repeat prescriptions for medication they take, and many others are not receiving appropriate medical assessments to formally diagnose new medical conditions before onboard primary care is administered to stabilise and/or treat them.
Under ILO's Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), port and coastal States must ensure that seafarers on board ships in their territory who are in need of immediate medical care are given access to medical facilities on shore. According to ILO, the exceptional measures adopted by some governments to contain the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be invoked as a valid reason not to comply with this international obligation.
The obligation to render assistance to seafarers in distress, including medical assistance, is also enshrined in the IMO Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), Salvage and Facilitation conventions, as well as in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
5. What is IMO doing to help seafarers?
IMO has established a multi-divisional Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) to monitor developments, coordinate efforts, communicate with all relevant stakeholders and provide targeted support in individual cases and particularly urgent situations.
This dedicated team often works 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 team has been working around the clock to find solutions – reassuring seafarers that contact IMO directly, contacting representatives from national governments, NGOs, trade unions or relevant associations, or orienting seafarers towards the right organization.
IMO's swift intervention has made a difference for seafarers around the globe. Click here for more details on measures taken by IMO to help individual seafarers.
Through the issuance of personal statements, the IMO Secretary-General continues to exhort Member States to respect the rights of seafarers and to uphold the obligations placed upon them under various ILO and IMO conventions. Moreover, IMO continues to work with governments at a diplomatic level to encourage local and national travel restrictions to be lifted for seafarers. It has also issued a number of circular letters providing guidance and key information on issues such as ensuring safe ship crew changes (CL.4204/Add.14), personal protective equipment (CL.4204/Add.15), seafarers certificates (CL.4204/Add.19) and ensuring a safe shipboard interface between ship and shore-based personnel (CL.4204/Add.16). Click here to access all guidance issued by IMO amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September, IMO's Maritime Safety Committee adopted a resolution calling on all Governments to take urgent action to resolve the humanitarian and safety crisis faced by the international shipping community as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more here.
6. What can governments do?
IMO and other organizations have repeatedly urged governments to designate as “key workers” seafarers, marine personnel, fishing vessel personnel, offshore energy sector personnel and service provider personnel at ports, regardless of nationality.
Governments are urged to provide these personnel with the necessary support, such as exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions, to allow them to join or leave ships and to transit through national territories (for example to an airport) for repatriation. They must also ensure these personnel have access to emergency medical treatment and, if necessary, facilitate emergency repatriation.
Governments and national authorities should ensure that all visiting merchant ships continue to have access to berths in port and terminals and do everything possible to allow crew changes to happen. They are strongly encouraged to implement a series of protocols, which set out general measures and procedures designed to ensure that ship crew changes can take place safely during the COVID-19 pandemic – and share them widely with the relevant national authorities. The protocols cover all key issues including provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 testing, temperature checking and proposals for designated lanes at airports. They were designed by a broad cross-section of global industry associations and endorsed by IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim in May.
Regarding recent positive news regarding the development of vaccines against COVID-19, Mr Lim said the key worker designation should ensure seafarers and maritime workers receive priority vaccination, to allow them to work and maintain vital global supply chains.
7. Why is the keyworker designation so important?
Key worker designation for seafarers is essential to exempt these professionals from specific COVID-19 related travel restrictions, allowing them to travel between their country of residence and ships, and to be repatriated at the end of their contracts. This is vital to allow crew changes to take place.
Crew changes are not only essential for the health and wellbeing of seafarers themselves, but they are also vital to ensure commercial ships can continue to carry essential goods safely and without unnecessary interruptions.
Shipping carries more than 80% of the global trade by volume. Sea transport moves the world’s food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods – including medicines and medical supplies that are vital in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The keyworker designation will ensure that the trade of essential goods, including medical supplies and food, is not hampered by the pandemic and the associated containment measures.
8. Which countries have designated seafarers as key workers?
Many IMO Member States and Associate Members have sent communications to IMO in which they specifically mention seafarers as key workers or made comments to indicate so. IMO disseminates such communications by means of Circular Letters which are available on the IMO website.
On 9 July 2020, 13 countries signed the Joint Statement of the International Maritime Virtual Summit on Crew Changes, in which governments pledged to facilitate crew changes and achieve key worker designation for seafarers. Others have been reported to have designated seafarers as key workers.
As of 15 November 2022, 66 IMO Member States and two Associate Members have designated seafarers as key workers. Member States are: Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Egypt, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, Lebanon, Liberia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Türkiye, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), and Yemen. The Associate Members are: Faroes and Hong Kong (China).
However, the situation remains complex and difficulties are still reported. In some cases, the key worker designation may only apply to nationals of a particular country and restrictions still apply to seafarers from other countries - leaving foreign crew unable to transit through that country for repatriation.
More countries may have designated seafarers as key workers without reporting it to IMO.
IMO is encouraged by the increasing number of countries that have designated seafarers as key workers and invites more Member States to follow their example.
9. Should the keyworker designation also apply to seafarers onboard cruise ships?
Yes, IMO’s calls for seafarers to be designated as key workers include cruise ships crew. All seafarers and marine personal are considered essential workers by IMO, regardless of the type of ship they work on. IMO urges governments and national authorities to ensure seafarers working on cruise ships are entitled to the same exemptions as other essential workers, such as permissions for transit and travel.
Cruise ships have faced particular challenges, with much larger numbers of people on board (both seafarers and passengers) compared to cargo ships. They may have thousands of passengers and crew, while even the biggest cargo ships may only have some 20 crew on board.
Most cruise lines stopped sailings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and have since been working to disembark and repatriate their passengers and crew. But to do this requires collaboration and cooperation between cruise lines, governments and others – which is exactly what IMO has been calling for.
10. Why should seafarers receive priority vaccination against COVID-19?
Establishing priority lists for vaccination is the prerogative of national Governments, but IMO Member States are encouraged to ensure seafarers, marine personnel and fishing vessel personnel receive priority vaccination. This will allow them to work and maintain vital supply chains, and would help resolve the ongoing crew change crisis.
IMO has repeatedly urged its Member States to designate seafarers as key workers, and IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim has said that this key worker designation should ensure seafarers can be vaccinated rapidly.
Seafarers fall under the category of essential workers outside health sector, which also includes police officers, frontline emergency responders, municipal services, teachers, childcare providers, and agriculture and transportation workers. Moreover, seafarers fit into the category of workers who are in economically critical sectors and cannot carry out their occupation remotely.
11. Which countries are offering to vaccinate seafarers against COVID-19?
Information received by IMO indicates that 24 countries have thus far implemented seafarer vaccination programs, or have signalled their intent to do so, in designated ports within their jurisdictions (a list of these countries and their constituent ports is accessible here). While this is encouraging IMO continues to urge more to step forward to accelerate, in particular, the vaccination of seafarers serving international shipping.
IMO is also encouraging Governments to recognise the role that other marine personnel play in facilitating global trade and, wherever possible, to also vaccinate them on a priority basis.
12. How can crew changes and repatriation take place safely?
IMO has endorsed a set of step-by-step protocols which set out general measures and procedures designed to ensure that crew changes can take place safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. These protocols have been drawn up by a broad cross-section of global industry associations representing various sectors of the maritime transport industry.
The protocols advice on safe procedures for joining ships as well as leaving ships and repatriation. They cover everything from provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 testing, social distancing, hygiene precautions, temperature checking, temporary accommodation and proposals for designated lanes at airports for seafarers, to name only a few. They include requirements for shipping companies and recommendations to governments, maritime administrations and other relevant national authorities such as health, customs, immigration, border control, seaport and civil aviation authorities.
13. What does international law say about the right of seafarers to be repatriated?
Regulation 2.5 of ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) states that seafarers have a right to be repatriated at the end of their contracts. Under the MLC, flag States have a responsibility towards the right of seafarers to be repatriated and port States have an obligation to facilitate such repatriation as well as the replacement of seafarers. ILO has indicated that these obligations must be respected during the pandemic without prejudice for the need to take measures to prevent contagion.
ILO’s 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) states that the maximum continuous period a seafarer should serve on board a vessel without leave is 11 months. This period may be exceeded in situations of “force majeure”, but any extension must be accompanied by appropriate safeguards to avoid any abuse and protect seafarers’ rights. According to ILO, thousands of seafarers have been required to remain on board beyond the 11-month maximum period. In some instances, seafarers have not been able to go home for 18 months.