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Press briefing notes Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Press briefing notes on call to alleviate COVID crisis at sea

06 October 2020

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville

Location: Geneva

Date: 6 October 2020

A joint statement by the UN Human Rights Office, the UN Global Compact and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has just been released, addressing the hidden crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of ship crew members and other workers stranded at sea for many months because of COVID-19.

In all, some 400,000 people are currently stranded on vessels, and a similar number are prevented from returning to ships, either to earn their living or to return home, due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and transit. In some cases people have been trapped on the same ship for 17 months or longer – far beyond the maximum 11 months permitted under international labour standards.

As well as people working on container ships and other commercial vessels essential to the global supply chain, similar conditions have been affecting people working in the fishing industry and on offshore oil and gas platforms. Such conditions are having a profoundly negative impact on basic human rights, including their right to physical and mental health, right to freedom of movement, and right to family life.

A number of UN entities including the International Maritime Organization and the International Labour Organization, as well as important bodies such as the International Transport Workers' Federation and the International Chamber of Shipping have been trying to draw attention to the problem and have proposed solutions including the need to grant crew members "key worker" status. However, Government anti-COVID measures continue to directly affect the capacity of ship operators to perform routine and necessary crew changes or grant shore leave.

The responsibility to respect the human rights of seafarers, and put an end to the intolerable situation in which they find themselves, is not only limited to governments and the shipping sector. In line with the UN Guiding Principles, this responsibility also extends to the thousands of business enterprises that use the services of maritime freight transport – which accounts for almost 90 per cent of world trade. Business enterprises in all sectors, especially multinational firms and global brands, as well as financial institutions, should assess and act to remedy the human rights situation of seafarers in the context of COVID, no matter what place they occupy in the so-called "value chain."

The joint statement calls on relevant business enterprises to identify the impacts of the pandemic, and of governments' response to it, on the human rights of seafarers and other marine personnel and to actively use their leverage to mitigate those impacts as much as possible. It calls on them to communicate this expectation to business partners and suppliers and exercise the leverage they have. It encourages them to urge governments to implement protocols and measures developed by UN agencies to enable safe crew changes. And it also calls on such businesses to join forces with industry associations and unions to exert collective pressure.

The statement welcomes the efforts undertaken by some companies to address the unparalleled crisis facing maritime workers, and appeals to other business enterprises to do the same, noting that the UN Guiding Principles provide the blueprint for this urgently needed engagement from the world's business community.


For more information and media requests, please contact: Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 / [email protected] or Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / [email protected] or Liz Throssell - + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected] or Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]

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