Safeguarding seafarers’ welfare in a pandemic

Crew members wearing protective masks and gloves. Credit: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

While seafarers’ welfare has been increasingly in focus in the maritime industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to heightened conditions of uncertainty and strain for seafarers. While the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006) currently only allows for 12 months of continuous service, with the inclusion of one month of annual leave, this has not and cannot be enforced during the pandemic.

While certain rules are still enforced, such as the payment of wages, the provision of amenities, and medical care, others have entered a grey zone where they have become far harder to enforce. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) noted that companies and shipowners have begun reducing agreed-upon wages or lowering the quality of working conditions on board in an attempt to cut losses. Seafarers have spoken about being asked to work under conditions where personal protective equipment (PPE) is not being provided, or where the quality of the equipment is not fit to function for their work on board.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has had cases where contracts are extended or terminated even while the seafarer is in quarantine on board; seafarers unable to be repatriated or just under unfair conditions; and medical issues requiring seafarer evacuation where this evacuation or medical assistance has been hindered due to COVID-19 restrictions.

ITF maritime co-ordinator Jacqueline Smith pointed out that while abandonment in the MLC is set up to deal with failures of the shipowner, the current pandemic has seen a failure of states to respect the rights of seafarers. “Unfortunately, this failure by flag and port states is not limited to the current crisis. The ITF has dealt with many cases in which the port or flag state becomes the main obstacle in the repatriation of abandoned crew. We’ve raised this repeatedly to both IMO and ILO [International Labour Organization],” she said.

Unconfirmed reports have begun to circulate about employers who have pressured seafarers to sign non-disclosure agreement (NDA) regarding conditions on board to be able to continue in their current circumstances, or asked to sign letters of resignation by employers so as to begin the process of repatriation. Both are conditions of which to be wary.

“Our message to any seafarers who have been pressured to sign NDAs regarding conditions on board, or are being required to work without pay, is to get in touch with your union or an ITF inspector. They can email the ITF for support on these matters, and I encourage them to do so,” advised Smith.

Dennis Gorecho, an attorney with Sapalo Velez Bundang & Bulilan Law Offices, suggested that any seafarer should be cautious when signing any document of repatriation if it is part of their employer’s plan to cut operational costs, as these letters of resignation may be used to evade the contracted obligations of the company. Depending on the document, it could be used against seafarers to hold them liable for their repatriation cost as well as the transportation cost of their replacement.

Look out for a feature on this topic in the October issue of SAS.