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UN agencies urge supply chains to protect seafarers’ rights

UN agencies urge supply chains to protect seafarers’ rights
Some ports are prohibiting crew changes for seafarers who have recently been to India

Several UN agencies have issued a set of guidance to help supply chain enterprises protect seafarers’ rights, amid concerns that the number of crew stranded at sea by COVID-19 restrictions could surge from the current level of 200,000.

The Human Rights Due Diligence Tool is a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact (UNGC), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The new guidance aims to ensure that seafarers have their rights safeguarded in areas such as physical and mental health, access to family life and freedom of movement.

UN agencies have expressed concern at reports of seafarers working beyond the 11-month maximum period of service on board set out by the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

They are also worried that companies engaged in international trade are avoiding chartering vessels where a crew change is due, with some demanding “no crew change” clauses in charter party agreements, preventing needed crew changeovers and adding further pressure on the maritime industry.

The tool provides guidance and a checklist for cargo owners, charterers and logistic providers to conduct human rights due diligence across their supply chains to identify, prevent, mitigate and address adverse human rights impacts for seafarers impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Michele Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “The COVID-19 seafarer’s crew change crisis has put the spot on one the weakest links in global supply chains. This is an urgent and grave humanitarian and human rights crisis that is impacting the lives of thousands of maritime workers.”

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said: “It is incumbent on everyone involved with shipping, across the entire supply and logistics chain, to ensure seafarers rights are protected.

“This tool is an important step forward, providing a practical approach for cargo owners, charterers and logistic providers to consider the human rights of seafarers and ensure they are put first and foremost as they work to deliver the goods that people need and want.”

Measures recommended as part of the tool include verifying with business partners that seafarers are not having to work beyond the expiration of their contracts without their willing consent, as to do so could be considered forced labour.

Additionally, the tool states that the cost of any quarantine obligations before or after joining the ship should not be borne directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by the seafarer.

Firms are also advised to accept route deviation requests from shipping companies for the purpose of facilitating crew changes, and to relay this expectation to business partners.

Meanwhile, a number of seafarer welfare charities and shipping industry players have launched an emergency relief fund to support seafarers and their families devastated by the rampant COVID-19 pandemic in India.

With the number of COVID-19 cases in India reaching more than 400,000 per day, some major ports are prohibiting ship crew changes for seafarers with recent travel history to India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

In response, the Seafarers International Relief Fund has set a target of US$1m. It has been established by bringing together leading international seafarer welfare organisations, The Seafarers’ Charity (formerly Seafarers UK) supported by The Mission to Seafarers, ISWAN, Sailors’ Society, Stella Maris and other charities.

Esben Poulsson, chair of the International Chamber of Shipping, commented: “We have all been shocked by the images and stories coming from India and our hearts go out to the people of India and those from India working around the world who are suffering from the impact of this pandemic.

“I am calling on shipowners and all those engaged in the maritime sector to support this initiative and consider increasing your contribution to seafarer charities at this time. When faced with significant challenges that maritime community always come together – this is what we do.”

A number of major shipping organisations have already pledged their support to the fund, including Anglo-Eastern, Ardmore Shipping, Cargill, Hafnia, IRI (Marshall Islands Flag), MSC, Pacific Basin and V.Group.

The fund will be used to deliver aid through existing welfare programmes run by the welfare partners in India, to make sure that support reaches seafarers and their families as quickly as possible, as well as ensuring that support can remain in place over the challenging weeks and months ahead.