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UN Agencies Make Urgent Plea for Crew Changes and ‘Key Worker’ Designation for Seafarers

Mike Schuler
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May 27, 2020

Photo courtesy IMO

The heads of the maritime, labor and aviation agencies at the United Nations have issued a plea for urgent action on crew changes and for “key worker” designation so that ship and airplane crews can be relieved and repatriated safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a joint statement, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), and International Labour Organization (ILO) advised that from the middle of June 2020, around 150,000 seafarers a month will require international flights to ensure crew changeovers can take place. Half of these seafarers will need to be repatriated home by aircraft.

Lack of crew changes and the inability for seafarers to fly home at the end of their hitches have emerged as two of the biggest challenges facing the shipping industry as a result of the pandemic.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, large numbers of seafarers, as well as crews of fishing vessels, have had to extend their service on board ships after lengthy tours of duty. Experts have warned for months that the situation is unsustainable, both for the safety and wellbeing of seafarers and the safe operation of maritime trade.

“For humanitarian reasons – and the need to comply with international safety and employment regulations – crew changes cannot be postponed indefinitely,” the statement said. “We are seeking the support of Governments to facilitate crew changes, operations essential to maintain the global cargo supply chains and operations related to humanitarian aid, medical and relief flights.”

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has left many ship crews stranded due to government-imposed travel restrictions, and even some port and airport closures. As a result, seafarers around the world are stranded onboard ships, unable to be repatriated home or replaced by relief crews.

The three Organizations have urged for “key worker” designation for seafarers, marine personnel, fishing vessel personnel, offshore energy sector personnel, aviation personnel, air cargo supply chain personnel, and service provider personnel at airports and ports, regardless of nationality. Meanwhile, governments have been urged to exempt these personnel from travel restrictions, to ensure crew changes can be carried out and that they have access to emergency medical treatment and, if necessary, to facilitate emergency repatriation.

The joint statement says Governments and relevant national and local authorities should implement already-agreed guidance, issued by ICAO, IMO, ILO and the World Health Organization (WHO), including on key worker designation. This includes permitting seafarers, marine personnel, fishers and offshore energy sector personnel to disembark and embark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purpose of crew changes and repatriation, as well as implementing appropriate approval and screening protocols.

Earlier this month, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim endorsed a series of protocols developed by a broad cross-section of global maritime industry associations to ensure that ship crew changes can take place safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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