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An influential grouping of maritime trade unions has publicly raised concerns about unsafe ship operations due to the tiredness and mental health of seafarers caused by extended tours of duty during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Nautilus Federation of maritime unions said seafarers have been the most immediately and urgently impacted during the pandemic through the closure of national borders and denial of crew changes. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers remain onboard vessels past their contractually agreed time, some for up to 15 months, with no idea when they might return home.

'This is a crisis and it has the potential to impact heavily on the safety of life at sea and protection of the marine environment,' the group said in an open letter to governments and the maritime industry.

'To those senior officers – our members – we say your union has your back. If you feel it is necessary to take measures for the health, safety and welfare of your crew, we will support you in exercising your professional judgement in compliance with the widely ratified international standards.

'Governments and ship owners worldwide need to know that we will do whatever it takes to ensure that our members are afforded protections against fatigue, caused by long working hours and extended tours of duty, as enshrined in the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping 1978 and the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (as amended).

'Our unions will extend support to their members who, in exercising any decision which, in their professional judgement, is necessary for safety of life at sea and protection of the marine environment, as set out in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974.'

On May 11 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) endorsed joint industry protocols designed to lift barriers to crew repatriation.

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim urged Member States to implement the protocols. 'In view of the importance of international maritime transport to the resilience of the global economy at this critical time, Governments are strongly encouraged to take urgent action to address this issue.'

The Nautilus Federation welcomed the recent easing of lockdowns and introduction of protocols for safe crew changes supported by the IMO but said crew changes are not happening quickly enough. 

'Governments need to understand that the time is now – they must be focussed on actions to ensure that our maritime professionals at sea and ashore are able to get home and those stuck at home can get back to work.

The Nautilus Federation consists of: Nautilus International; ACV-Transcom (Belgium); Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers; Australian Maritime Officers’ Union; CFDT:FGTE (France); Finnish Engineers’ Association; Finnish Ships Officers’ Union; International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots (USA); Lederne Søfart - Danish Maritime Officers; Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (USA); Merchant Navy Officers Guild – Hong Kong; New Zealand Merchant Service Guild; Norwegian Union of Marine Engineers; Officers’ Union of International Seamen; Seafarers’ Union of Croatia; Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union; Singapore Organisation of Seamen; Sjöbefälsföreningen Maritime Officers Association (Sweden); Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (Panama); Unión de Ingenieros Marinos (Panama).


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