Joint statement urging continued collaboration to address the crew change crisis, safeguard seafarer health and safety, and avoid supply chain disruptions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

Statement | 28 February 2022
The continuously rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the Omicron variant, is a stark reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. The epidemiological situation continues to evolve, posing renewed challenges to societies and economies, including to international shipping, which is critical for global trade and sustainable development.

After Omicron was designated as a “variant of concern” (VOC) by the World Health Organization (WHO), many countries reimposed stringent measures, such as travel bans, which have affected seafarers and other transport workers. As a result, the already fragile global supply chain is facing increased congestions and delays.

While the impacts of the Omicron variant and related policy responses depend on a range of factors and vary considerably, common and proactive approaches are needed to address evolving challenges to international shipping and its key workers, and to minimize adverse impacts on seafarers and their families, as well as on global trade, supply chains and sustainable development, while continuing to protect local communities.

The plight of seafarers

Throughout the pandemic, the world’s 1.9 million seafarers, many of whom are from developing countries, have played a vital role in ensuring the continuous flow of critical goods along supply chains, hence keeping the world’s shipping and trade moving.

However, as a result of some of the international traffic-related measures that have been put in place to mitigate the health and health systems impacts of the spread of the virus, many seafarers are still unable to leave ships, remaining stranded at sea far beyond the expiration dates of their contracts and the default 11-month maximum period of continuous service on board, as required by the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006). For the same reasons, some seafarers have been unable to join ships to replace stranded crews, leading to a significant loss of income and resulting in hardship for seafarers and their families. This humanitarian crew change crisis has resulted in significant mental strain, fatigue and consequently increased the risk of accidents, imperilling working conditions in the shipping sector.

While the number of seafarers that remain stranded has decreased, it remains considerable and further efforts must be made to rectify the situation and alleviate the continuing crisis. Moreover, the full impact of the Omicron variant and related response measures on crew changes is not yet clear and further VOCs may yet emerge.

To maintain recent positive trends, governments and industry, in collaboration with international organizations, need to scale up their common efforts to limit the effects of emerging variants on crew changes while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of seafarers and global communities.

Vaccination challenges

WHO has recommended that seafarers be included as one of the groups of transportation workers to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination in instances of limited supplies. While seafarers are increasingly gaining access to COVID-19 vaccines, numerous challenges remain. For example, while the supply of COVID-19 vaccines has largely increased in the past months, there are persistent inequities in the volume available across countries. In addition, the recognized duration of the validity of vaccination certificates, adopted by some countries as the sole condition to grant entry, or as to facilitate and expedite international traffic by others, is subject to constant readjustments, generating additional uncertainty and disruption. Vaccine hesitancy among crew members and limited access to booster vaccines is also posing further challenges.

Health document authentication for travellers and border authorities

Virtually since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a variety of different national and regional approaches have been developed to the introduction of COVID-19-related documents, and their format, to mitigate the impact of the spread of the virus in the context of international traffic. Such heterogeneity poses challenges related to interoperability, and the ability of border, immigration and public health authorities to verify and validate such documents. WHO has published technical specifications and implementation guidance to support countries on appropriate deployment of digital COVID-19 certificates for vaccination and will soon release a similar guidance document on digital COVID-19 certificates for test results.

Health document authentication requires that Member States participate in a trust network. Multiple international trust networks are currently in use. One of the services that comprises the technical infrastructure of a trust network are the public key directories of participating entities. For example, ICAO published its first Health Master List on 31 January 2022, a new data resource for States and aviation stakeholders to aid in the more efficient and secure authentication of traveller health certificates. Issuing authorities can work with ICAO to ensure that public key certificates needed to verify their health proofs are included in the Master List and thereby publicly shared. There is no cost associated with inclusion of certificates in the List. The Health Master List concept is based on the same principles as the generic ICAO Master List now used to verify electronic travel documents and will complement existing national and/or regional solutions and provide an essential international mechanism for sharing public key certificates.

Access to COVID tests and personal protective equipment (PPE)

Testing is a critical cornerstone of the COVID-19 pandemic response, enabling countries to shape the delivery of health care, to protect vulnerable populations, and, depending on the SARS CoV 2 virus transmission scenario experienced, to suppress its spread. Furthermore, the use of appropriate PPE, including face masks, is one of the main tools to enable individuals to protect themselves and others from infection, particularly in closed and overcrowded settings where physical distancing may be difficult to respect, such as on board ships. Seafarers often find themselves in situations where access to COVID-19 testing and PPE is limited, due to the difficulties of receiving tests on board. Employers should ensure that these medical supplies are readily available to prevent or contain potential outbreaks on board.

Calls to action

The International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are reiterating their calls for continued collaborative efforts to address these ongoing challenges. Recognizing the critical role of the maritime sector in keeping trade flowing during the global fight against COVID-19, the four organizations have throughout been highlighting the pandemic’s impacts’ risks to shipping and global sustainable trade and development.

Recalling in this context also UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/75/17, today, ILO, IMO, UNCTAD, and WHO urge all stakeholders to ensure the continued safe operation of shipping, and to keep ships moving, ports open and cross-border trade flowing during the pandemic.

We call on Governments, national and local authorities, and all relevant stakeholders, including employers, to take the following critical actions.