In December 2020, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) passed several resolutions specifically addressing the need for seafarers, and other marine personnel, to be designated as key workers.

Three vaccines have come to the forefront in Western countries – the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, Moderna vaccine and Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine. Essential workers like healthcare workers have already started receiving these vaccines in the UK, the US, Singapore and various other countries.

When and how will seafarers get vaccinated?

Several governments do not appear to understand the importance of the shipping industry and the role seafarers play in keeping the world moving. As aptly stated by Abdulgani Y Serang of the The National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), “[d]uring the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, the lands of the world were locked, the skies of the world were inactive, only the merchant navy ships in the seas of the world were alive, active and working non-stop”.

In urging the Indian government to prioritise the vaccinations of seafarers, NUSI has also agreed to bear the costs of such vaccinations.[1] While the Indian government’s response is not entirely concrete at the moment, this is certainly welcoming news, coming from a country with one of the largest numbers of seafarers worldwide.

Crew change has been a prominent difficulty for operators and seafarers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. In highlighting the pervasive problem, INTERCARGO Vice-Chairman Captain Jay K. Pillai said “[i]t is of grave concern that at least 3% of all seafarers currently on board ships will be spending a second Christmas at sea, away from their families and friends, and an estimated 20% of all seafarers on board are still not relieved upon completion of their regular contracts, despite flights becoming available”.[2]

Various calls have also been made at an international level by InterCargo[3] and importantly, by IMO[4] for stakeholders, both private and public, to prioritise the vaccination of seafarers.

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) President and Maritime Union of Australia National Secretary Paddy Crumlin reiterated, “[t]he despair of this crisis cannot be understated. Over 400,000 seafarers internationally are held captive on their ships, and an equal number are prevented from travelling to relieve these desperate workers due to the global and national inconsistencies in travel restrictions.”[5]

Australia however has not designated seafarers as key workers providing an essential service. Australia was a notable omission from the group of 45 IMO member states who have already determined seafarers to be key workers.

For now, it is unclear whether globally, or even here in Australia, concrete steps would be taken to designate seafarers as ‘essential workers’ or ‘key workers’, or how vaccinating such a large group would be carried out logistically, and whether there is adequate infrastructure in place for such a programme.

Vik Pillay
Senior Associate (Admitted in Australia, Singapore and England & Wales)