Supply chains firms urged to protect seafarers’ rights  

New due diligence tool aims to help businesses uphold their responsibility to protect human rights at sea.

A wide-ranging set of guidance has been issued to help enterprises using shipping services to protect the human rights of seafarers, as hundred of thousands are still stranded on ships due to COVID-19 imposed travel restrictions.

The Human Rights Due Diligence Tool is a joint initiative of the UN Global Compact (UNGC), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The Due Diligence Tool for cargo owners and charterers has been issued amid concerns that the number of crew stranded at sea by COVID-19 restrictions could surge from the current level of 200,000, potentially returning to the peak of 400,000 seafarers at the height of the crew change crisis in September 2020. UN agencies hope the new guidance will help ensure that the working conditions and human rights of seafarers are respected and comply with international standards.

The new guidance aims to ensure that seafarers have their rights safeguarded in areas such as physical and mental health, access to family life and freedom of movement. Whilst recognizing the importance of the maritime industry in transporting more than 80% of global trade goods, UN agencies have expressed concern at reports of seafarers working beyond the 11-month maximum period of service on board set out by the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

The UN agencies have also expressed strong concern at reports that companies engaged in international trade are avoiding chartering vessels where a crew change is due, with some demanding “no crew change” clauses in charter party agreements, preventing needed crew changeovers and adding further pressure on the maritime industry. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), companies engaged with the maritime industry have a distinct responsibility to respect the human rights of seafarers as workers along their value chain.

Welcoming the new tool, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said: “Seafarers are at the heart of the global supply chain. They are also at the mercy of COVID-19 restrictions on travel and transit. This has led to hundreds of thousands of seafarers being denied repatriation, crew changes, shore leave and ultimately being forced to stay working on ships long beyond their contracts. It is incumbent on everyone involved with shipping, across the entire supply and logistics chain, to ensure seafarers rights are protected. This tool is an important step forward, providing a practical approach for cargo owners, charterers and logistic providers to consider the human rights of seafarers and ensure they are put first and foremost as they work to deliver the goods that people need and want.”

The tool provides guidance and a checklist for cargo owners, charterers and logistic providers to conduct human rights due diligence across their supply chains to identify, prevent, mitigate and address adverse human rights impacts for seafarers impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Commenting on the plight of seafarers, Sanda Ojiambo, Executive Director and CEO of the UN Global Compact said: “The mental and physical wellbeing of seafarers must be a priority and this tool is an important step in building awareness of how to address human rights abuses in the maritime sector. It sends a powerful message of the importance of incorporating maritime workers in due diligence mapping to ensure that adverse human rights impacts are identified, prevented, mitigated and addressed.”

Guy Ryder, ILO Director General, said: “As the ILO Committee of Experts said in its general observation last December, it is precisely at times of crisis that the protective coverage of the MLC, 2006, assumes its full significance and needs to be most scrupulously applied. This is even more so given that the Convention contains only minimum standards for the protection of seafarers’ rights. The ILO has urged Governments to ensure the protection of seafarers’ rights, and welcomes this initiative that will help businesses to play their part in this collective effort.”

Michele Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “The COVID-19 seafarer’s crew change crisis has put the spot on one the weakest links in global supply chains. This is an urgent and grave humanitarian and human rights crisis that is impacting the lives of thousands of maritime workers. All companies involved in global supply chains may be linked to this crisis. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require that companies identify whether they are involved with the crisis, including through their business relationships, and take any necessary measure to seek to address the situation.”

Measures recommended as part of the tool include:

Ensure individual and collective action is taken to address concerns around seafarers’ rights, including using leverage to highlight concerns to Governments and maritime transport providers.

Seek written assurance that no seafarers have been on board for a continuous period of more than the 11 months maximum period of service derived from the MLC, 2006.

Verify with business partners that seafarers do not have to work beyond the expiration of their contracts without their willing consent, as to do so could be considered forced labour.

Provide seafarers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE)

Verify with business partners that the cost of any quarantine obligations before or after joining the ship are not borne directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by the seafarer.

Abide by the legal obligation to grant seafarers access to medical care ashore, for instance by permitting diversions for the purpose of medical care.

Use the IMO recommended framework of protocols to ensure safe crew changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as cascading this to any relevant partners.

Accept route deviation requests from shipping companies for the purpose of facilitating crew changes, and relay this expectation to business partners.

Verify that vessel operators are limiting any avoidable crew contract extensions.

Credit: IMO

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