IMO warns of increasing casualties among seafarers stuck at sea

Kitack Lim
IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim, PHOTO: IMO


Some seafarers have now been on board their ships for more than 17 months, exceeding the 11-months limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said, urging governments to act on the crew change crisis.

It has been almost six months since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic. The resulting travel restrictions, limited number of flights and government lockdowns disabling crew changes have created a humanitarian crisis at sea.

More than 300,000 seafarers and marine personnel are estimated to be stranded at sea and unable to be repatriated despite the expiry of their contracts. A similar number of seafarers have been unable to join ships and relieve them.

Lim said that many have been denied proper access to medical care and shore leave, in breach of their rights under the MLC and other international instruments.

The statement echoes concerns of numerous industry bodies on the impact of the situation on seafarers’ health and wellbeing, but also for the safety of shipping.

“Overly fatigued and mentally exhausted seafarers are being asked to continue operating vessels, increasing the risk of shipping casualties.

“If the crew change crisis is not resolved soon, ships will no longer be able to operate safely pursuant to the organization’s regulations and guidelines, further exacerbating the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lim said.

The call is being made on the back of a major environmental disaster in Mauritius caused by the Wakashio Capesize bulker, whose crew have been on board past the expiry of their contracts.

An investigation into the cause of the grounding and the oil spill is underway, however, preliminary findings from Panama show that the grounding could have been prevented if the crew hadn’t diverted from its course in an attempt to pick up Internet signal from the coast.

IMO Secretary-General said that resolving the crew change crisis will require a “whole of government” approach involving several ministries.

He reiterated his call to all member states to designate seafarers as key workers providing an essential service, and to implement the IMO-approved Protocols to allow for safe and secure crew changes. He also insisted on the importance of removing other barriers to crew changes, such as visa and travel restrictions, and of providing seafarers with immediate access to medical care and medical facilities on shore, when needed.

Lim has invited member states to raise the issue of seafarers and the crew change crisis during the upcoming High-Level Week of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, beginning on September 22, 2020.

ILO, IMO and the UN Global Compact will host a side event during that week in order to raise the visibility of the crew change crisis on World Maritime Day September 24, 2020.