Nigeria has joined 44 other member states of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) have designated seafarers as key workers, a key step in resolving the ongoing crew change crisis.

The move is essential as it will exclude seafarers from specific COVID-related travel restrictions, allowing them to travel between their country of residence/ships and to be repatriated at the end of their contracts.

The restrictions have leftover 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea.

Meanwhile, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee of Experts has issued a ruling that governments have failed in their duty of care towards seafarers under international law during the coronavirus pandemic.

The designation plays a key role in granting seafarers priority access to safe vaccination.

The situation has become a genuine humanitarian crisis as borders and ports closed to crew changes.

It has forced seafarers to stay on board for months beyond their contracts, exerting growing pressure on their physical endurance and mental health. For those, who have finally been able to return home, the ordeal has put to question their future in the business as they felt neglected and unable to exercise their basic human right.

On the other hand, for many of those who were and are still unable to sign onto ships, the period ashore meant that they had no other income, putting a major financial strain on them and their families.

The IMO has called all its member states to designate seafarers as ʺkey workersʺ providing an essential service, to facilitate safe and unhindered movement for embarking or disembarking a vessel.

“Member States that have not yet done so are strongly encouraged to take action to address this issue and designate seafarers as key workers as a matter of urgency,” the IMO said.

Countries that designated seafarers as key workers are: Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Moldova, Montenegro, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Yemen.

However, in the first ruling of its kind, the ILO committee of 20 jurists found that governments failed abjectly to protect the minimum of seafarers’ rights, as set out under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006.

This includes basic rights such as access to healthcare, repatriation, annual leave, and shore leave.

The finding follows submissions made by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

Responding to the ruling, ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton and ICS Secretary General Guy Platten issued a joint statement:

“Governments have been asked for months to address the crew change crisis, now they have been told that they must act to help the hundreds of thousands of seafarers still on-board ships due to the unlawful actions of member states.

“This ruling sets out that it is both legally and morally wrong for countries to continue to expect seafarers to work indefinitely, supplying the world with food, medicine, and vital supplies, while depriving them of their fundamental rights as seafarers, as workers, and as humans. This landmark ruling is a clear vindication of what seafarers’ unions and shipowners have been saying for the past nine months.

“This ruling makes clear that all governments have to follow international law and urgently recognise seafarers as key workers with practical effect. This means allowing seafarers to get off in ports for medical attention. It means enabling seafarers to get to an airport to fly home when their contracts are finished. And it means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships without having to battle a mountain of bureaucracy. To date, only 46 countries have classified seafarers as key workers, which is simply not good enough.”