UN agency finds governments in breach of international law, urges quick fix to the crew change crisis

In a landmark ruling the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found that governments have breached seafarers’ rights and failed to comply with several provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 during the Covid-19 pandemic, including Article I(2) on the duty to cooperate.

The UN agency has called on states to recognise seafarers as key workers “without delay”.

In the first ruling of its kind, the committee of 20 jurists found that governments have failed abjectly to protect the minimum standards for the protection of seafarers’ rights, as set out in international law under the MLC. 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). The findings have been sent to national governments. Currently just 46 UN member nations recognise seafarers as key workers. More than 800,000 seafarers have been hit by the crew change crisis this year – whether stuck at sea, or sitting at home and out of pocket.

Responding to the ILO ruling, ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton and ICS secretary general Guy Platten issued a joint statement, noting: “This ruling clearly 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.”

Cotton and Platten went on to say: “Once again a roadmap has been laid out for how to resolve this humanitarian crisis and return to a normally functioning crew change system that the world’s supply chains can rely on. It’s up to governments to get on with implementing that roadmap and urgently prioritise seafarers as key workers for Covid-19 vaccines as a clear demonstration of compliance with this finding.”

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. Prejudices and more prejudices about “countries” that most probably don’t exist. Why don’t you mention their names?

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