World’s largest flag gives its blessing to keep seafarers at sea for 17 months

The world’s largest ship registry has given the go-ahead to keep seafarers at sea for another three months in a move that has sparked severe concern for the health of those onboard.

The Panama Ship Registry yesterday advised that seafarer contracts can be extended by a further three months with some seafarers now on course to serve a total of 17 months at sea. The extension means some ships will sail with seafarers who will have worked eight months beyond the maximum period specified under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

Reacting to the news, Mark Dickinson, the general secretary of UK trade union Nautilus International, tweeted that Panamanian-flagged ships with exhausted crews will be unsafe and ought to be detained.

The next results of the quarterly Seafarers Happiness Index are due out soon and the issue of flag states is understood to feature prominently.

“A number of seafarers have raised concerns about the ease with which the MLC and contracts can just be overridden. It seems that the goalposts are not only being moved, the nets are being cut and the ball burst,” a spokesperson for the index told Splash.

With strict travel restrictions in place across the globe following the outbreak of coronavirus seafarers’ employment contracts have been extended month by month this year with estimates that 400,000 crew are needing repatriation and cases of self-harm are reportedly on the rise. The matter came to a head last week when a final deadline – agreed between employers’ groups and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) – elapsed.

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. Gold medal for this should hang on the chest of IMO and shipmanagers. Panama only is confirming our worst suspicions.

  2. Are you serious abt this?!
    17 months?
    How do they believe that will be posible?
    Panama registry thinks once again Seafarers are scourge?

  3. Disgraceful!! Clearly pandering to their registered ship owners benefit with total disregard for the welfare of the crew and safe operations of the ship. Its amazing that a flag state can controvene a convention that they are signatory to. This action is a mockery of common sense and moral responsibility. This Flag should placed on every port state control black list. Let the owners feel the pain of not complying with International Conventions through detentions and penalties and hopefully they will respect the terms of the MLC..I would not be surprised if some administrator who never spent a day at sea made this decision…unfortunately this decision was most likely made at the highest level where people with seagoing experience would be in counsel….shame on you for not using your position and influence to protect the seafarer instead of your job. How will you sleep at night with your betrayal.

    1. Well written Kenny, disgraceful conduct, i hope AMSA in Australia have the balls to intervene.

  4. Could someone gently and politely remind the Government of the Republic of Panama that they have signed a Convention and if they propose to derogate from it they should first denounce the Convention? Just breaking a Convention because you feel like it is the path to international anarchy, which won’t benefit smaller nations such as… er … Panama.

    1. Andrew, can you help and ask countries to open their channel to allow crew changes .. the worldwide situation is not normal, and many seafarers are not able to be repatriated as their countries are closed. the extension of a contract means that they are not illegally on board and they are covered with all the benefits and salaries and hours of rest, etc. Those contracts are not automatically extended, but a series of documents are needed to asses the situation …. Do you know what the other flags are doing? because they all worldwide are having this problem.

  5. I’m sat here shaking my head and at a loss for words…… how can any state consider such action? I thought tours of that length largely disappeared with the days of sail. It is inhumane and irresponsible to even consider treating seafarers that way. If there are any respectable Owners operating ships under Panama flag, I trust that they will look to move to pretty well any other flag…..and seafarers avoid employment aboard vessels registered in Panama.

  6. Perhaps if countries will allow crew changes, and open airports and ports and allow crew changes … well crew could disembark. Let’s pressure countries to allow crew changes, instead of blaming a registry for facilitate a problem that everyone worldwide has, crew and shipowners, and the WORLD. Instead of judging … let’s see, are the other flags repatriating crew? yes? where? how? or their crew are remaining onboard awaiting for repatriation … this is a worldwide problem, seafarers need to go home and they are NOT allowed to disembark and go to an airport not because of the shipowner but because of the authorities of that country where the ship is , not because of the flag of the ship.. It is easy to take the keyboard and write …. but holding the hand of seafarers in the distance is the important thing .. use your keyboard to talk to seafarers and give them hope and energy to continue ……. use the keyboard to put pressure on the GOVERNMENTS that are NOT opening their airports and not facilitating crew changes …….Sorry but some comments make me so sad .. as they reflect the reality is not known by everyone

  7. I don’t think you can blame the managers for not relieving crew, many of them are doing a lot of effort. However, a flag state which is supporting the policy of many governments not to accommodate seafarers’ exchange is nothing more than supporting forced labour.

    Are airline crews as well forced to remain on their plane?

  8. Quite a slap in the face of the ITF as well. I was wondering how the ‘downing of tools’ would work when seafarers do not have support at sea. Now this! So all the seafarers’ on ships registered in Panama would be breaching their contracts. Let’s see which other registers are going to follow, or do they ban together to reverse the Panama decision. Seafarers need to have a global strike. I see no recourse but to stop world trade in it’s tracks. They can’t fire all of them. This needs an international collective response. It can be done.

  9. ‪”The extension means some ships will sail with seafarers who will have worked 8 months beyond the max period specified under the Maritime Labour Convention” @nautilusint spot on to call out the Panama registry given the health & well-being risks to both seafarers & shipping. ‬

  10. It’s funny to hear about closed airports when shipmanagers are flying to their vacation hotels with no problem.

  11. Because all seafarers are just not action strongly, because seafarers are afraid of their job to lost or not to hire next contract, because seafarers are far away for land and information and not able to do together resist for this kind of rude idea, because seafarers are not to pay for them who will work for us if seafarers are in trouble, because we are so stupid! We were never been a hero or a heroine in this industry since great sailing ages. We were always just part of them…. now they talking about us “KEY WORKER” and doing like that….Are you proud of seafarers because they call you Key worker? Or anger? Because they were doing for us so rude? We need to change for next generations not to having such unequaled treatment or discriminatory treatment anymore In future. We need to organize 100% seafarers union not a part of ITF. I am Korean Master mariner and truly concerned seafarers life at sea. If you are agree with me, please do hashtag #seafarerslivematters in your sns or whatever you upload.
    Safe staying and hanging there till you get home asap! Bless you all!!

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