On World Maritime Day, calls grow to detain ships in order to stop the humanitarian crisis at sea

An influential group of unions has called for ships to be detained in ports if seafarers have been onboard longer than international treaties allow.

Marking World Maritime Day today, the Nautilus Federation of 22 maritime unions said seafarers are being denied their human rights during the pandemic with as many as 300,000 stuck at sea beyond the agreed 11-month maximum service.

The ease by which flag states have ignored the rights of seafarers is a stain on the entire maritime industry

The failure of governments, industry and flag states to name seafarers as key workers and get them off ships and home to loved ones has led to a humanitarian crisis that can no longer be tolerated, the federation said in a joint statement.

“This is a wholly predicted – yet avoidable – humanitarian crisis, and we call for action against governments who deny seafarers their fundamental rights,” Nautilus Federation director Mark Dickinson said.

“Maritime and shipping professionals, at sea and on inland waterways, have had enough. We will continue to push for an international solution, together as Nautilus Federation affiliates and as affiliates of the International Transport Workers Federation, so that the key workers of the world’s seas and rivers are able to get to and from their vessels without delay.

“Should that international solution cause port states to detain growing numbers of vessels until seafarers are repatriated, the industry and governments will need to prepare for the disruption this would cause to global supply chains.”

We might be the engine of  global trade, but even as a humanitarian crisis has unfolded at sea our voice has not been heard

The unions have drawn attention to the inability for some of the world’s largest flags to enforce the fundamental rights of seafarers during the Covid-19 pandemic. While many of these flags of convenience quickly ratified the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC), the “ease and speed by which many flag states subsequently ignored the rights of seafarers is a stain on the entire maritime industry” the federation union said.

“The major flag states have the ability to resolve the crew change crisis by refusing to allow seafarers on their ships to be denied their fundamental human rights,” the unions said, calling on port states to assist flag states by enforcing the provisions of the MLC and detain ships that do not comply.

With the crew change crisis now extending beyond six months, shippers are finally making their voices heard. Big name brands such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble are among consumer companies belatedly urging world leaders to resolve the plight of hundreds of thousands of seafarers stuck on ships.

Chief executives of around 30 household consumer brands, from retailer Carrefour to beverage maker Heineken, have signed an open letter calling for measures to allow more crew changes at ports, ensure the safety of overworked seafarers and make sure supply chains don’t use forced labour.
The letter was sent to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres yesterday ahead of a General Assembly web conference on seafarers.

To ensure the supply of critical goods and protect seafarers’ human rights, the CEOs are calling for measures that include introducing a robust test and trace regime to ensure the safety of seafarers and crew changes; limiting any unavoidable crew contract extensions to the next scheduled port where crew change is possible and/or diverting course to a port where crew changes can be arranged within the International Labour Organization’s guidelines.

While ostensibly the theme for September 24’s annual United Nations-backed World Maritime Day is about sustainability, vocal names within shipping have focused their comments today on the ongoing plight of stuck seafarers around the globe.

Writing on LinkedIn, Rajesh Unni, founder of Singapore-based shipmanager Synergy Group, suggested now is the time to face up to shipping’s “inability to shape and direct policies that impact our ability to conduct business safely and efficiently”.

Discussing maritime’s “echo chamber”, Unni wrote: “When we called on governments to help our seafarers and classify them as #keyworkers, our pleadings largely fell on deaf ears. We might be the engine of #globaltrade, but even as a #humanitariancrisis has unfolded at sea our voice has not been heard.”

Amid alarming reports of growing mental distress at the prolonged periods at sea for many, another former seafarer, Manish Singh, now the CEO of Ocean Technologies Group, has launched a petition online aiming to hold governmental authorities to account in doing their role to create reasonable travel corridors to get the world’s seafafers home. Splash readers can sign the petition here.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Fair enough, but will any port accept having its berths clogged with ships while owners, operators and port state governments wrangle over who can be let off and when? Those ships might be stuck there for months, especially in countries with closed borders. No use getting the crew off the ship if there are no flights to get them home. They merely exchange one form of captivity for another.

    And what do you do with countries that simply don’t bother with PSC inspections and therefore never know, and presumably don’t care, if ships calling at their ports are MLC-compliant? Pressure needs to be put on these countries to start behaving like responsible members of the maritime community.

    There should be white/grey/black lists of port states as well as of flag states. A state put on the black list would surely find the cost of goods increasing and calls reducing in consequence. THEN we might see improvement.

    We have to take a similar approach to this as we did for piracy. So long as countries see the mistreatment of seafarers as a problem AT SEA, then nothing will be done – out of sight is out of mind. The solution, as Jack Lang reminded us with Somalia-based piracy, lies on land.

  2. I can name a country which is great at enforcing ILO rules on ships which visit its ports – as many do – but which is utterly useless, not to say deliberately obstructive, at getting seafarers off ships and onto flights home and vice versa. So can most people reading this.

    Hypocrisy, much?

  3. Sailors have little or nule consideration for their flag state. Why should a civilized society collaborate with such nasty industry?

    1. Because it’s citizens want cheap fuel, food and stuff, and they don’t want to pay a fair price for sea transport. Which suggests that, just as the Athens of Pericles depended on the labour of chained and branded slaves, including children, living permanently underground in the silver mines of Laurion, “civilisation”can often be skin deep.

  4. It would be great if the replacement was available at the member country port and the exit for the replaced crew was determined first.
    Therefore member countries can be literally actioning their obligations.

  5. Port State Control was born from the necessity to raise the quality of shipping because flag states, particularly flag of convenience states refused to regulate their tonnage. Now Port States have been captured by the niceties of yet another inspection by a recognised organization on behalf of the incompetent authority. Meanwhile crew members in the main continue to be afraid of blacklisting. However we are beginning to see that tide turn. Seafarers are beginning to recognise the they will have to take charge of their own destiny. Today a Chief Officer, a Chief Cook and a cadet refused to sail out of Canada. They just refused and we took them off. The vessel is a car carrier, roro, these vessels are high risk and require special P&I coverage that recognizes that risk. So what do you think happened? Did Panama require the company to put on a C/O and Cook? Did PSC become involved and detain? No, Panama issued dispensation for this ship to sail on out without two of its most critical crew members onboard. We have a lot of ships sail onwards with short hand crewing leaving an additional burden on remaining crew. But this case scares me. The owners and Panama flag State are taking on enormous risk with this Ro Ro going out.

    We now routinely see crew onboard 17 months. They have had it. It is time for PSC to remember what their job is and to enforce conventions and regulations.

    1. The seafarers are fortunate to have you and the ITF as delegates on their behalf when they reach ports around the world. You are one hundred percent correct, if the regulators do not enact PSC they continue to be toothless lions and nothing will change.

  6. We have seen a signifucant rise in mental distress and suicide during this crisis. Emergency action is needed to save lives.

  7. This expose of the blatant exploitatation of seafarers – a kind of ” involuntary servitude ” – is yet another example of how institutions, and we humans, hypocritically profit from the abuses and miseries of others. An exploitation now compounded by the sins of gobalization in other economic spheres. As Hannah Arendt, appositely noted, we are indeed inured to ” the banality of evil. “

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