Major consumer brands call to end ‘forced labour’ amid crew change crisis

Crew members wearing face masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some of the world’s top consumer brands have called on governments to designate crew as key workers to resolve the crew change crisis.

Consumer brands such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble Co., Mondelez International, and Heineken NV issued a letter on 23 September to United Nations secretary-general António Guterres, asking governments to grant exemptions to travel restrictions and quarantine measures currently preventing seafarers from embarking and disembarking from ships.

The group of companies raised strong human rights concerns, stating, “the situation has also inadvertently created a modern form of forced labour”. The letter also noted the deteriorating conditions on board that represent a huge threat to seafarers’ health and safety at sea.

“This [the crew change crisis] has led to a major disruption of global supply chains, which are vital to manufacturers and retailers and their ability to produce and offer essential consumer goods, including food and hygiene products,” said the CEOs of various giant consumer companies.

The letter also contains the consumer companies’ pleas for the measures to resolve the crisis, including the introduction of a robust test and trace regime and the limitation of unavoidable crew contract extensions to the next scheduled port where crew change is possible or diverting course to a port where crew changes can be arranged.

“We are coming to a tipping point if we don’t resolve the issue of crew changes,” Marc Engel, chief supply chain officer at Unilever, who spearheaded the letter, said in an interview. “There’s a huge risk that the global supply chain will start failing. It’s an inadvertent situation of forced labour because these seafarers are stuck on these ships. It’s a human rights issue.”

Guterres quickly responded to the letter, addressing the crisis by asking governments to designate seafarers as key workers to ease their travels at borders and ports. However, despite multiple pleas to global governments, the situation remains the same. While some individual governments have made moves towards resolving the crisis, progress is slow.

Guy Platten, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS); and Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, confirmed their support to the intensified calls, warning the numbers of seafarers impacted would only continue to increase without co-ordinated action by governments.

The ICS estimates that more than 400,000 seafarers are currently marooned on ships, trapped at sea with no immediate prospect of being relieved. Some seafarers are trapped on board due to the extension of their contracts and have worked for 17 months continuously, well beyond the 11-month limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

In addition to those stranded at sea, the ICS also estimates that another 400,000 seafarers are waiting on shore to relieve them, often with little or no pay. “We could well see a million seafarers adversely affected in the coming months,” said Platten. “The situation is unsustainable and at a breaking point.”

Platten added, “We as industry stand ready to support all governments in their efforts to rapidly implement programmes that will facilitate safe crew change.”

Meanwhile, in an online event on the margins of the UN General Assembly held by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on 24 September, secretary-general Kitack Lim said that this traumatic situation for seafarers threatens the fundamentals of ship safety standards that the IMO has worked to develop over six decades.

“Overly fatigued and mentally exhausted seafarers are being asked to continue to operate ships,” Lim said. On more than 60,000 cargo ships that continue to deliver vital goods, foods, and medicines, ship safety is hanging in the balance, just as seafarers’ lives are being made impossible. The safety of navigation is in peril.”

During the event he also reaffirmed his plea to governments. “Action is needed, and is needed now. We all depend on seafarers. They should not be the collateral victims in this pandemic. Seafarers deliver for us, and now we need to deliver for them.”