UN tool aims to help seafarers facing fresh threats of being stranded by COVID-19

“You can’t get off”

Seafarers like Yrhen Bernard S. Balinis are used to being away from home for long stretches of time, but the threat of new COVID-19 variants and shifting government travel bans threaten to keep them apart from loved ones far longer, just when their families may need them most.

“There will be days that they will be in my dreams for days in a row, and I will have no chance of contacting them as I am in the middle of the Atlantic,” said Balinis, an ordinary seaman on a 456-foot general cargo ship. “It’s paralyzing not knowing.”

Some 1.5 million people work around the world as seafarers on ships that transport an estimated 80% of global trade on water, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Typically, they finish a job lasting several months, disembark and fly home, but travel restrictions and closed borders have made that difficult, if not impossible.

Some 200,000 seafarers are now impacted, with some being forced to work beyond the end of their contracts, and that figure could as much as double as new COVID variants arise and government restrictions keep them from  going home, UN experts say. The figure peaked at 400,000 in September 2020.

Aimed at addressing the needs of seafarers struggling with the impact of the pandemic, a new human rights due diligence checklist is being provided to companies relying on shipping supply chains by the United Nations Global Compact, UN Human Rights Office, International Labour Organization and  International Maritime Organization. 

Prepared for cargo owners and charterers, the checklist, formally called the Human Rights Due Diligence Tool, addresses concerns like safe crew changes, physical and mental health care and working conditions for crew members at sea during the global health crisis. The tool aims to help these companies 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. 

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of global supply chains as seafarers continue to endure tremendous, and yet largely invisible, hardship and suffering,” said Sanda Ojiambo, CEO & Executive Director of the UN Global Compact. “The mental and physical wellbeing of seafarers must be a priority and this tool is an important step.”

“As soon as there’s a new variant, borders go back up, and the same issue starts again - it’s like one door opens and progress is made, then another one closes,” said Martha Selwyn, an associate with the Sustainable Ocean Business Action Platform at the UN Compact. “You’ll get on, and you can’t get off.”

Balinis last saw his family in the Philippines in August 2020, but he is luckier than some colleagues stuck on board ship for as long as 15 and 16 months, he said.

“Loneliness will engulf your very being,” he said. “You will question yourself as to why did you choose this profession. Why are you here? It will test your persistence and your faith.”

Seafarers cannot work more than 11 months on board, according to the ILO Maritime Standards approved in 2006.

Thousands of seafarers have made desperate pleas to maritime labor advocates about being unable to reach onshore medical care or take leave, according to the ILO, which has asked governments to consider seafarers as key workers and made vaccines readily available to them.

Captain Nelson Fernandes, who has been sailing for 31 years, said shipping companies are coming up against governments who won’t let them change their crews due to COVID-19 prohibitions.

“Not many countries allow crew change, and even if allowed, there are ridiculous restrictions,” he said. Meanwhile, on board, he said:  “We keep getting news of some crew members having lost their loved ones and not getting to be with them during their final moments. 

“The hardest part of being away is not being with your family when they need you most,” said Fernandes, of Mumbai, India.

UN officials said some companies are seeking to charter ships that have no upcoming crew change, even seeking to put it in writing, because changes are time-consuming and expensive when they entail quarantine and other protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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