Highlighting an “unparalleled crisis” affecting hundreds of thousands of crew members and maritime workers reeling due to the impact of COVID-19, the UN has called on the business sector and others involved in the shipping industry to do more to address the plight of seafarers worlwide.
In all, some 400,000 people are currently stranded on vessels, and a similar number are prevented from returning to ships, either to earn their living or to return home, due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and transit.
They have become “collateral victims” of COVID-19 related measures imposed by governments, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Global Compact and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
Measures such as travel bans, embarkation and disembarkation restrictions or suspension in the issuance of travel documents have severely strained the working conditions in the global shipping sector. As a result, seafarers are either unable to board ships or are trapped on board, extending their contracts beyond their original tours of duty – and often beyond the 11 months maximum period on board, according to international labour standards.
Similar conditions can be also found in those working in the fishing industry and on off-shore platforms, the three entities added.
“This situation has severe impacts over the basic human rights of seafarers and other marine personnel, including the right to physical and mental health, the right to freedom of movement, and the right to family life,” they said.
“It also increases dramatically the risks of security and environmental hazards.”
Responsibility not only limited to shipping sector
In the statement, the three entities also drew attention to the fact that the responsibility to respect human rights of seafarers is not only limited to the shipping sector.
In line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the responsibility extends to the thousands of business enterprises that use the services of maritime freight transport – which accounts for almost 90 per cent of world trade, the three entities said.
“Business enterprises of all sectors, especially multinational firms and global brands, as well as financial institutions with links to the sector, should assess and act upon the human rights situation of seafarers in the context of COVID, no matter which place they occupy in the value chain.”
OHCHR, UN Global Compact and the UN Working Group urged steps such as conducting human rights due diligence to identify the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and of governments’ response to COVID on the human rights of seafarers and other marine personnel across their value chain, and actively using their leverage to mitigate these impacts to the greatest extent possible.
They also urged meaningful dialogue and consultation with seafarers’ and other worker’s organizations, trade unions, civil society, and other stakeholders in the design of relevant measures and actions.