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Press Release

UN Agency finds governments in breach of international law

• Landmark ruling from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) finds that governments have breached seafarers’ rights and failed to comply with several provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Article I(2) on the duty to cooperate.
• UN agency calls on states to recognize seafarers as key workers “without delay”.
• High level committee of legal experts reiterate that “it is precisely at times of crisis that the protective coverage of the MLC assumes its full significance.”

17 December 2020

In a landmark ruling the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee of Experts has sent a strong message to governments that they have failed in their duty of care towards seafarers under international law during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the first ruling of its kind, the committee of 20 eminent jurists has found that governments have failed abjectly to protect the minimum standards for the protection of seafarers’ rights, as set out in international law under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006. This includes basic rights such as access to healthcare, repatriation, annual leave and shore leave.

The finding follows submissions made by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). The full ILO Committee of Experts finding, which is being sent to national governments, can be viewed here.

Responding to the ruling, ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton and ICS Secretary General Guy Platten issued a joint statement:

Governments have been asked for months to address the crew change crisis, now they have been told that they must act to help the hundreds of thousands of seafarers still on-board ships due to the unlawful actions of member states.

This ruling clearly sets out that it is both legally and morally wrong for countries to continue to expect seafarers to work indefinitely, supplying the world with food, medicine and vital supplies, while depriving them of their fundamental rights as seafarers, as workers, and as humans. This landmark ruling is a clear vindication of what seafarers’ unions and shipowners have been saying for the past nine months.

This ruling makes clear that all governments have to follow international law and urgently recognise seafarers as key workers with practical effect. This means allowing seafarers to get off in ports for medical attention. It means enabling seafarers get to an airport to fly home when their contracts are finished. And it means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships without having to battle a mountain of bureaucracy. To date, only 46 countries have classified seafarers as key workers, which is simply not good enough.

We welcome the intervention from the ILO Committee of Experts in spelling out how governments have failed in their obligations. The Committee is unequivocal in its critique on the lack of required cooperation by governments. It criticises States for allowing the situation to persist for so long.

But it also explains how together we can fix this. This is one of the most direct and effective Experts’ observations we’ve seen. Once again a roadmap has been laid out for how to resolve this humanitarian crisis and return to a normally functioning crew change system that the world’s supply chains can rely on. It’s up to governments to get on with implementing that roadmap and urgently prioritise seafarers as key workers for COVID-19 vaccines as a clear demonstration of compliance with this finding.

The crew change crisis

National travel restrictions introduced because of the Covid-19 pandemic have unfairly impacted 400,000 seafarers who have been unable to go home or be replaced. Hundreds of thousands of workers are being forced to overrun their contracts and are currently stuck at sea or are waiting to start their tours of duty.

The current situation risks the safety and mental wellbeing of seafarers. While the continued inability to rotate seafarers on and off ships poses a serious threat to the ability of ships to deliver vital cargo at a time when countries need it most.

The ICS and ITF have campaigned for a year to label seafarers as key workers and to ensure that their rights are not breached because of the Covid-19 pandemic.