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23 Dec 2022
5 mins
This World Owes Seafarers A Significant Debt

“The pandemic has reaffirmed our view that seafarers are still misunderstood by the world, and that in most capitals, they remain a low to non-existent priority. As we enter a new post-pandemic world it is vital that we remember and protect the seafarers to whom this world owes a significant debt.”

Mr Ben Bailey, Director of Programme, Mission to Seafarers The Mission to Seafarers, highlighted this in the Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights 2022 Progress Report published by The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI).

Throughout the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, maritime ports have for the most part remained open for trade as every country relies on the shipping industry to ensure the integrity of global supply chains. In doing so, they rely on seafarers, some two million of whom are at sea at any given time, to ship 90% of global trade, including food, fuel, goods, and commodities.

Continued global reliance on maritime trade during the global has resulted in a humanitarian “crew change crisis” at sea. According to authors of the Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights 2022 Progress Report, Frances House (IHRB) and Andrew Stephens (SSI), crew change crisis has impacted the seafaring landscape.

In 2021, IHRB and SSI, in collaboration with the Rafto Foundation, developed and published an industry Code of Conduct for Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights with the aim of improving the human rights and welfare of the world’s nearly two million seafarers.

The Code of Conduct focuses on the full spectrum of seafarers’ rights and welfare, from fair terms of employment and crew protection to availability and appropriate management of grievance mechanisms. Its 52 clauses go beyond the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and provide a tool for shipowners, operators, charterers and cargo owners to understand the extent to which current operations meet crew welfare responsibilities.

The Code of Conduct can be used by shipowners and operators to ascertain if their current operations meet their seafarers’ rights and welfare obligations. The Code is supported by a practical self-assessment questionnaire developed by IHRB and SSI in collaboration with RightShip, which provides guidance for companies on definite ways to adopt the commitments and track progress against them.

A year on since the launch of the Code of Conduct and self-assessment questionnaire in October 2021, Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights 2022 Progress Report disclosed that there was initial swift uptake with companies quickly submitting self-assessments via the RightShip Crew Welfare Tool. Although the uptake curve has flattened, the number of shipowners, operators and managers, as well as the number of vessels covered, has continued to grow.

As of 5 October 2022, the self-assessment had been completed by 181 Document of Compliance (DOC) companies, covering over 5,632 vessels. Statistics reveal that submissions cover just under 10% of the ocean-going fleet capacity.

Data from the RightShip Crew Welfare Tool revealed that bulk carriers account for half the vessels covered, and almost half the ships were less than 10 years old. Asian companies were the most conscientious users of the RightShip tool, with Chinese, Singaporean, Japanese and Marshall Islands businesses accounting for 54% of the total.

At the inaugural ‘Seafairer’ roundtable discussion in Singapore on 11 October 2022, shipowners, operators, and cargo owners expressed hope that the Code of Conduct would become mandatory across the industry. They believed that this would enable a more level playing field and prevent a gap emerging between those implementing the Code and the rest of the global fleet.

“It is imperative to focus on a robust, independent verification mechanism to build transparency and trust in the Code,” IHRB and SSI highlighted. It has become clear that the next step would be verification – to provide assurance to enable cargo owners to include the Code in their contracts with shipping companies. Such step would move the maritime industry from voluntary best practice to mandatory compliance.

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) welcomed the publication of the Code of Conduct for Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights and is supportive of the accountability-based initiative designed to improve seafarers’ rights and welfare.

ITF noted that, “a voluntary standardised tool like this is just a start. The Code of Conduct should be included in charter party agreements, charterers should refuse to work with shipowners who do not meet the standards of the Code of Conduct, while at the same time supporting shipowners in their improvement efforts; they should set targets on the number of ships that meet the Code of Conduct (as stipulated in the Code).

Shipowners and operators should publish their performance on the self assessment questionnaire, they should set public targets for improvement, and chart their progress. Stakeholder engagement with representative trade unions will be critical to achieve this goal as is ensuring collective bargaining coverage of vessels.”

Authors of the Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights 2022 Progress Report concluded that this is a work in progress that offers “a sober reflection of the current situation”. They emphasised the need to continue making improvements and tracking progress. They added that stakeholders should continue to share best practice, ensuring their seafarers know their rights and have access to resources and grievance mechanisms available to them. “We have a shared responsibility to ensure that seafarers benefit from the Code of Conduct.”

The report highlighted, “The Code also serves as a constant reminder that, in a highly competitive and often data-driven industry, at its operational heart are vulnerable individuals whose dignity and rights must be protected and upheld.”

“The first year of the Code of Conduct has been beneficial in establishing the basic knowledge and a baseline for shipowners and charterers to track progress against. But we can’t stop there.”