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Occupational safety and health

Seafarers desperately need prompt access to medical care say ILO and International Maritime Organization

With hundreds of thousands of seafarers unable to disembark due to COVID-19 restrictions, a joint statement issued by the two organizations says the issue of medical care for seafarers is ‘a matter of life or death’.

Press release | 06 October 2021
GENEVA (ILO News) – The heads of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have issued a joint statement calling for port and coastal States to allow seafarers to receive medical care.

Describing the issue as a ‘matter of life or death’, the joint statement also urges nations to prioritize seafarers for COVID-19 vaccinations and to designate seafarers as key workers, recognizing seafarers' valuable contribution to world trade.

The joint statement by ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, and IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim outlines the difficulties facing seafarers in accessing medical care due to COVID-19 restrictions. It highlights the “obligation to ensure seafarers can access medical care ashore without delay, whenever they need it, and to extend medical assistance on board should the need arise by allowing qualified doctors and dentists to visit ships”.

“Receiving such care can be a matter of life or death for seafarers who fall ill while working on ships. The international community should do its utmost to support those who have maintained the global supply chain under pandemic conditions over the last 18 months and keep carrying on often despite enormous personal hardships.”

The joint statement notes that “almost 14 months after issuing the ‘Recommendations for port and coastal States on the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care ashore during the COVID-19 pandemic,’ seafarers are still struggling to access such care when needed. Advocacy from Member States, the maritime industry, social partners and seafarers themselves has once again brought the plight of seafarers to the fore.”

According to the ILO's Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC 2006), Member States must ensure that seafarers on board ships in their territory are given access to medical facilities ashore, should they require immediate medical care, including dental care.

The legal obligation to render assistance to seafarers in distress, including medical assistance, is also an intrinsic component of the IMO’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS); the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR); and the Convention on the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL).

The ILO and IMO heads also encourage governments to recognize the role other marine personnel play in facilitating global trade and, wherever possible, to also vaccinate them on a priority basis.

Twenty-four countries are currently implementing seafarer vaccination programmes, or have signalled their intent to do so, in designated ports within their jurisdictions.

“We are extremely grateful to these countries but urge more to step forward to accelerate, in particular, the vaccination of seafarers serving international shipping. Government agencies, industry, labour and seafarer welfare groups continue to work assiduously to facilitate and/or deliver vaccines for seafarers. However, much remains to be done. We shall continue to work with our sister UN agencies, Governments and industry bodies to address the ongoing needs of seafarers and to safeguard their basic rights, so that they may continue to facilitate the global economy,” the joint statement says.