Crisis at sea: One year on

One year on from when Fidelity International first raised the plight of seafarers stranded due to Covid-19 measures, things have begun to improve. The number of seafarers stranded aboard their ships has halved to 200,000 and the UN recently launched an initiative designed to safeguard seafarers’ rights that covered many of the points we had raised.

However, those workers still stuck far from home continue to face the threat of Covid-19 variants (they are often not part of local vaccine programmes) and pandemic-related restrictions. Each one represents a link in the chain of global trade, and their situation risks potential disruption of the kind we witnessed when the giant cargo ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal in March 2021. As such, it remains critical that this crisis be fully resolved and soon.

A brewing humanitarian crisis and a threat to global supply chains

In spring 2020, as the Covid-19 crisis deepened, we became aware of increasing news of disruptions to global maritime activity. Restrictions on travel and trade were closing off ports and cancelling flights, causing severe delays to the ordinary rotation of cargo vessel crews between their ships and home ports.

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers became stranded aboard their vessels, as stringent quarantine measures across the world made it impossible to disembark at designated ports or return home by air. At the height of the crisis in September 2020, over 400,000 seafarers were stranded at sea, with many working long beyond their contracts. This became a liability for the commercial shipping sector as well as a brewing humanitarian crisis for the hundreds of thousands of seafarers who are the engine of global trade.

Flora Wang, Director, Sustainable Investing, said at the time: “If no one does anything, it’s just a matter of time before something disastrous happens.”

Driving change through investor engagement

Shipping is responsible for 90 per cent of global trade. It is essential not just to a global economic recovery from Covid-19, but to maintaining our current way of life. To protect global supply chains and seafarers’ health and safety, therefore, Fidelity’s sustainable investing team and shipping analysts sounded the alarm by actively engaging with our investee companies on the issue.

We then reached out to other investors to do the same. In December 2020, a consortium of international investors, led by Fidelity, representing US$2 trillion of assets under management called for urgent action to end this humanitarian crisis in an open letter to the UN. We reiterated the need to classify seafarers as ‘key workers’ to enable them to continue to perform their essential services in a safe and secure manner. And as the most effective way to resolve this crisis, we also recommended seafarers have access to vaccines with immediate effect.

Around the same time, the United Nations Assembly called on UN member states to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers and to implement relevant measures to allow stranded seafarers to be repatriated and others to join ships, and to ensure access to medical care.

New UN human rights tool urges businesses to act

Since then, the number of stranded individuals has declined thanks to the efforts undertaken by governments, shipowners, and other parties such as trade organisations and investors who continued to raise awareness about the need to resolve this matter urgently.

The UN has also launched the ‘Human Rights Due Diligence Tool’, which says businesses should “undertake human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and address adverse human rights impacts on seafarers resulting from restrictions to crew changes. This involves putting pressure — individually and collectively — on governments and maritime transport providers to ensure respect for seafarers’ rights.”

This is a welcome development and mirrors many of the points raised by Fidelity, including the need to:

  • Urge charterers and other business partners to be flexible and to accept route deviation requests from shipping companies to facilitate crew changes
  • Encourage these companies to consider contributing to or sharing the costs of deviation and other expenses relating to the pandemic
  • Call on government authorities to implement coordinated, consistent policies and legal measures designed to alleviate the situation of seafarers during the pandemic, such as designating seafarers as “key workers” and implementing the framework of protocols recommended by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Reprieve, but the issue remains

Despite recent improvements, however, the issue has not been fully resolved and the threat of new Covid-19 variants could quickly reverse the tide. Today, fewer than 60 countries have responded to the UN’s initiative and designated seafarers as key workers. Seafarers are also not being prioritised in many countries’ vaccination roll-out plans.

In a recent statement, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim noted: “Governments should identify and prepare for the challenges of the vaccination of seafarers who spend long periods of time away from their home countries. We need to continue to work together to develop relevant protocols and guidance around vaccine certification. This is particularly important as any barriers to travel created by national vaccine protocols may further complicate an already difficult crew-change situation.”

We therefore continue to urge fellow investors to engage with companies on this issue, governments to take the necessary action and the media to keep raising awareness of the seafarers' plight.