The UN Human Rights Office and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, have joined the United Nations Global Compact in calling for businesses across the value chain to act and assess the human rights situation facing seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 800,000 seafarers are currently either stranded on vessels or prevented from returning to ships due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel and transit.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all business enterprises should respect human rights throughout their operations, including during the transfer of goods in their supply chains. Accounting for almost 90 percent of world trade, thousands of business enterprises use the services of maritime freight transport. The pandemic has impacted seafarer and other marine personnel’s basic human rights, including the right to physical and mental health, the right to freedom of movement and the right to family life. With many seafarers stuck on board ships well beyond the 11 months maximum mandated by international labor standards, security and environmental hazards risk increasing.
In a joint statement, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact and Anita Ramasastry, Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, call upon all relevant business enterprises to:
Conduct human rights due diligence to identify the impacts of the pandemic and governments’ response to COVID-19 on the human rights of seafarers and other marine personnel across value chains and actively use their leverage to mitigate these impacts to the greatest extent possible;
Communicate this expectation to business partners and suppliers and exercise their leverage in this regard;
Urge governments to implement protocols and measures developed by UN agencies to enable safe crew changes;
Join forces with industry associations and unions to exert collective leverage and engage in meaningful dialogue and consultation in their spheres of influence.
Sanda Ojiambo, CEO and Executive Director of the UN Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, commenting on the call to action said: “In the context of this pandemic, the responsibility to respect, protect and stand up for seafarers’ rights extends far beyond shipping companies. The vast majority of companies, from multinationals to global brands, rely on maritime transport and seafarers to keep their supply chains moving. It’s time to show they stand with the seafarers and urge governments to find a political solution”.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, said: “The situation of seafarers worldwide is a hidden but acute humanitarian crisis. It is affecting the basic human rights of hundreds of thousands of people, including their rights to physical and mental health, to family life, and to freedom of movement. Behind the dry statistics, there are countless individual stories of human suffering that require a prompt response from governments. Businesses enterprises also can — and should –play a role.”
Anita Ramasastry, Chair of the UN Working Group of Business and Human Rights, said: “The desperate predicament in which seafarers find themselves during the COVID-19 crisis is a human rights emergency affecting a vast number of people and implicating countless business enterprises that must help to resolve the situation. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide the globally recognized and authoritative framework for State duties and business responsibilities in preventing and addressing such adverse business-related human rights impacts. Urgent steps need to be taken to get these seafarers home, using the Guiding Principles as a key tool.”
While several shipping companies, including Maersk, have called for action, a number of non-shipping related businesses are increasingly stepping up, expressing strong concern for the ongoing forced labor in their supply chains. Last week, 30 major consumer goods forum companies, including Unilever and Danone, wrote to the Secretary-General to express their urgent concern. CEOs from ten of the world’s largest seafood companies also called for urgent government action in a statement released last week.
Last week, at an event convened by the UN Global Compact and UN partners on the margins of the General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, reiterated seafarers’ essential role in the “often invisible global logistics chain”. He repeated calls to governments, alongside leaders from business, the UN, and unions, to deem them “key workers” and facilitate their transfer.