The Day of the Seafarer: Have seafarers suffered the brunt of the pandemic?

Last Updated on Thursday, 24 June, 2021 at 10:02 am by Andre Camilleri

Dr Michael Agius is an associate within the Marine Litigation Department at Fenech & Fenech Advocates

25 June marks the Day of the Seafarer; a day where people are invited to recognise the contribution which seafarers make to international trade and the world economy.

Following the negative impact which the Covid-19 pandemic had upon the shipping industry last year, and in particular the hardships which seafarers had to endure, it is only fitting that the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) decided to strengthen its efforts to give more visibility to the plight of seafarers and the invaluable role they play. The IMO is the United Nations’ specialised agency responsible for the regulation of safety and security of shipping, as well as of the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution caused by ships. Malta is one of the 174 States that are members of IMO, having joined as far back as 1966. Today, Malta has adopted numerous international maritime law conventions including for instance, the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC), which is one of the most comprehensive international instruments with respect to the protection of seafarers and their rights.

While most people are aware that the pandemic brought word trade to a near standstill, few people realise that the pandemic effectively imprisoned hundreds of seafarers on board vessels at sea for months on end. Men and women were stranded at sea on terms with their original contract of employment expired, unable to disembark from the ship due to port restrictions around the world, unable to be repatriated due to travel bans and restriction in most airports. Conversely, many seafarers were stuck on shore, unable to join ships and earn a living. The unfortunate truth is that most people do not know much about seafarers and their daily struggles. Indeed, when one spots a ship out at sea sailing upon the horizon, it is very easy to forget that it is manned by a crew. Given the resilience the seafaring community has shown throughout the pandemic, it is no surprise therefore that IMO’s World Maritime theme for 2021 is Seafarers: At the core of shipping’s future.

Prior to Covid-19, nobody had anticipated that a virus could have such an impact on all global sectors and industries – likewise no one could have predicted the effects it would have on shipping. The possibility of a global pandemic was not adequately catered for in any international maritime convention or instrument or even under Maltese law. This unregulated scenario brought with it a plethora of legal issues and circumstantial obstacles; many of which related to manning of vessels and crew change.

The provisions of the MLC are incorporated into our law through the Merchant Shipping (Maritime Labour Convention) Rules (MLC Rules). The MLC Rules protect seafarers’ basic working rights, while imposing obligations on owners to ensure a fair and safe working environment for seafarers on ships. Ship-owners for instances are also obliged to repatriate any crew member whose contract has expired. The owner will arrange for all the seafarer’s travel expenses until the latter is finally back in his home country. However, due to implementation of national restrictions, imposed in most countries, during the pandemic, it became very difficult (sometimes close to impossible) for seafarers to even disembark the vessel, let alone travel to their country of origin upon the expiration of their employment contract. Therefore, owners were willing to repatriate their crew but legally could not do so. It soon became obvious that some international guidance was required as to how to still protect seafarers in these testing times.

On 31 March 2020 and subsequently again on 1 October 2020, the Special Tripartite Committee of the MLC issued statements relating to the treatment of seafarers during the pandemic. The encompassing theme of these statements was for governments and Flag State authorities to ensure that every seafarer is treated in a respectful manner, giving them the status of “key workers” due to the important nature of their role in the supply chain.

On a national level, Transport Malta issued Port Notice No. 10/2020 on 26 May 2020 which was aimed at better protecting seafarers by allowing an exemption to the travel ban for repatriation or ship operations, stating that the Superintendent of Public Health would consider each situation on a case by case basis allowing repatriation to take place through Malta when required.

The International Labour Organization also played its part to try and raise more awareness on the problems which seafarers were facing. It issued Information Notes relating to the interpretation of specific clauses of the Convention, and by extension the MLC Rules, where Covid-19 is concerned. Likewise, the IMO has published several protocols to be implemented by the owners of vessels and charterers alike.

The IMO established the Seafarer Crisis Action Team, which throughout 2020 and the beginning of 2021 dealt with thousands of cases, involving stranded seafarers throughout the globe. Apart from issues of physical fatigue and illness, due to prolonged periods offshore, many seafarers have suffered from psychological distress and anxiety.

Earlier this year, key shipping stakeholders signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change. This declaration was signed by different players within the industry to confirm that they would ensure that crew-change and repatriation would take place in a safe and timely manner. High standards of health on board vessels was a key element, with the signatories obliging themselves to follow additional protocols to safeguard their workforce.

On this Day of the Seafarer, it is important that the main industry players understand that seafarers are indeed key workers and that they have suffered the brunt of this pandemic as front liners, at times being trapped on vessels for months on end. Although the industry has united to take several steps and measures in the right direction, the pandemic may have shown us all that existing international legislation needs to be broadened to cater for any similar situation in the future.

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