As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, thousands of seafarers are stranded in various ports and harbours around the world. It is a hellish situation. The indefinite virtual lockdown is enough to cause stress, anxiety, and even depression amongst crew members.

Whatever happened to ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006? The so-called “bill of rights” for seafarers accords them the right to be repatriated under three circumstances. The third of these conditions arguably covers the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who is reponsible for repatriation?

MLC 2006 identifies the two parties which are chiefly responsible for repatriating seafarers: the flag state and the shipowner. However, the Convention also states that the country from which the seafarers are to be repatriated or their home countries “may arrange for their repatriation and recover the cost from the Member whose flag the ship flies.”

Lest anyone forget, port authorities and foreign consulates have a role to play as well.

 A moral test for the shipping industry

Since these are abnormal times, some shipowners as well as governments might invoke the principle of force majeure. How can thousands of seafarers be repatriated when airlines have grounded their fleets and some countries have restricted or even banned incoming flights?

That, however, seems to be a convenient way to disown or minimise responsbility and exculpate oneself. Can the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights be suspended on account of a calamity or war? The same is true of ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. None of its provisions has been put on hold because of COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic is not only a test for how far MLC 2006 can protect the rights of seafarers. It is also a moral test for the whole shipping industry. That thousands of seafarers are stranded because of COVID-19 shows how much it cares about the men and women who toil at sea. So much for the slogan hailing seafarers as “heroes of global trade”.

~ Barista Uno

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