Review and Commentary

23 May 2021

London. UK. Back in January, the ITF voiced the view that the newly introduced Neptune Declaration had reset expectations and made the shipping industry itself accountable for what amounted to forced labour for seafarers trapped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, accountability for enforcement of international conventions rests first and foremost with the State signatory, and while the Declaration has achieved a significant sign-on, its ability to influence outweighs any ability to enforce its asks.

The Declaration has highlighted four key actions that need to be addressed to resolve the situation, says Global Maritime Forum’s Head of Research, Kasper Søgaard: “Seafarers should be recognized as key workers and given priority access to Covid-19 vaccines. We need to establish and implement gold standard health protocols based on existing best practice. There is a need for increased collaboration between ship operators and charterers to facilitate crew changes, and we must ensure air connectivity between key maritime hubs for seafarers.”

Now, with over 800 signatories, Søgaard sees that the messages contained in the Neptune Declaration have been picked up by other stakeholders across the industry and among governments and international organizations. “We are for instance very happy to see that the ILO has recently adopted a resolution calling on governments to ensure that seafarers have priority access to vaccines.”

The ILO has included the Neptune Declaration in its “Information note on maritime labour issues and coronavirus (COVID-19)” which provides guidance on how best to address the complexities of the current crisis in light of the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

“We also believe the clear signal from the maritime industry and the signatories to the Neptune Declaration that dealing with the crew change crisis is urgent has helped reinforce the messages that the IMO and ILO have consistently sent to governments and other international organizations about the need to protect seafarers,” Søgaard says. “The IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim has welcomed the Neptune Declaration and expressed his delight that the industry in coming together to support ways to resolve the crew change crisis.”

Managers document the extent of the problem

Most recently, the Neptune Declaration has developed the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator. Based on data from 10 ship managers, the Indicator documents the number of seafarers who are onboard vessels for over 11 months or beyond the expiry of their contracts. It will be updated monthly.

Peter Burkal, Managing Director at OSM Maritime Crew, says “For more than a year crew changes have been a major challenge to the industry, putting a lot of stress on the crew. The crew change crisis is by far from over, and we must continue to put efforts into getting seafarers to be prioritized as key workers for easy travel and to get priority for vaccines.”

Simon Frank, Chief Human Resources Officer at Thome Group, notes the global surge in COVID-19 cases. “We as companies, together with all stakeholders in the maritime industry, owe it to our seafarers to show more respect to the crew change procedures now – and the Neptune initiative is an excellent community to drive this agenda.”

Charterers act on shared responsibility

A key achievement of Neptune Declaration signatories is the development of a set of Best Practices for Charterers which aims to turn the Neptune Declaration recommendations into concrete action and inspire other charterers to implement these best practices.

With its release came the statement from those who led its development: “No charter contracts should contain clauses preventing necessary crew changes from being carried out,” said Ashley Howard, Chief Financial & Operating Officer, Commercial at Rio Tinto; Eman Abdalla, Global Operations Director at Cargill Ocean Transportation; Guilherme Brega, Head of Shipping at Vale SA; Kit Kernon, Global Head of Shipping at Vitol and Peter Lye, Global Head of Shipping at Anglo American.

The charterers say: “The starting point of our best practices is to have a clear leadership mandate from top management that states the intent of the organization to play its role in carrying out necessary crew changes. This sends a clear signal to all our employees that we are ready to take all reasonable efforts to ensure crew changes take place, even when this may lead to costs and delays.”

Rio Tinto has confirmed to HRAS that it will not use “no crew change” clauses, with a spokesperson saying: “Rio Tinto believes that everyone, across the maritime value chain, has a role to play to support crew welfare, and we are fully committed to support the industry and to not utilising ‘no crew change’ clauses, supporting transparency of information, providing flexibility on schedule and facilitating crew changes – to ensure seafarers can get home safely, well within the requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention.”

Back in January, General Secretary of the ITF, Stephen Cotton, called for investors to ask the companies they own and deal with what they are doing to address the crew change crisis. “And this means asking why any company in the industry didn’t sign this declaration.”

Human Rights at Sea agrees. It is good to see the 800+ entities who have taken an overt step to recognising the issues raised and to publicly-signing up. The question now is, what next?

[NB: Human Rights at Sea is a signatory to the Neptune Declaration]


About Human Rights at Sea

Human Rights at Sea is a UK-based charitable NGO established in 2014 whose vision is to end human rights abuse at sea.

HRAS has collated affirmations made by some of the Neptune Declaration signatories:

European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA): “ECSA is deeply committed to recognising seafarers as key workers around the globe and helping them overcoming the pandemic crisis.” Martin Dorsman, ECSA Secretary-General: “ECSA stands behind our companies that have signed the Neptune Declaration, and the European shipping community fully commits to ensuring the rights and wellbeing of the seafarers who have been supporting the continuous running of the global supply chain. Governments must now be held to account. The key to ending this humanitarian crisis is the close collaboration between the authorities, the whole maritime industry, and our social partners. We all have to realise that no action is not an option, because it would further worsen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and make it even harder for the world to recover from the aftermath.”

OneLearn Global: Nigel Cleave, senior advisor: “OneLearn Global will do everything possible to impact key decision makers in recognising seafarers as essential key workers in keeping global supply chains operational. With a number of our team having also served at sea, we fully understand the absolute necessity for the Neptune Declaration, as well as the need to have a shared responsibility to ensure that the current crew change crisis is resolved as soon as possible. Furthermore, this experience will also provide an opportunity upon which to build a more resilient maritime supply chain.”

Fleet Management Limited: Kishore Rajvanshy, MD: “The Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator is a step forward to addressing the escalating crew change crisis and the emotional wellbeing of our seafarers. It gives us an opportunity to marshal our collective knowledge and data to respond effectively to the situation.”

Teekay Group: “As part of the declaration, we recognize that we have a shared responsibility to ensure that the current crew change crisis is resolved as soon as possible and to use the learnings from the crisis as an opportunity to build a more resilient maritime supply chain.”

Altera Infrastructure: “Our seafarers and offshore workers are our frontline heroes, and we admire and salute their efforts put in to achieve safe operational excellence every day. However, salutes and applause are not enough to ensure a safe passage from their homes to their place of work – and back. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers around the world suffer from the consequences of the ever-changing restrictions in this fluid situation. Altera Infrastructure, together with several hundred other organisations, has signed the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer wellbeing and Crew Change. We call on our peers and other stakeholders, in particular relevant government bodies, to join us in our efforts.”

DFDS: “Seafarers need priority access to vaccines.”

Mintra: Scott Kerr, CEO: “We work with the maritime industry to create safe and compliant people, but the fatigue experienced after extended periods at sea compromises all that we are striving to achieve. Fatigue affects the individual in terms of their health and mental wellbeing, and it also increases the risk of incidents and accidents that could harm human life and the environment. This situation undermines the global supply chain, which relies on seafarers to deliver safe and reliable operations. While Covid-19 is currently the main focus, we need to find solutions to the crew change issue now before any future global disruption occurs and key workers, such as seafarers, are severely impacted again.”

South32: “As part of the maritime value chain, we recognise we have a shared responsibility to ensure this humanitarian crisis is resolved as soon as possible, and that seafarers are able to return home safely and on time.”

UK P&I Club: CEO Andrew Taylor: “As this pandemic has developed it has become increasingly clear that seafarers, as an essential part of the global supply chain, should be treated as key workers with prioritised access to vaccinations. We fully endorse the aims of the Neptune Declaration.”

MMA Offshore: David Ross, Managing Director: “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant many challenges for MMA’s seafarers. There has been a remarkable effort from our offshore teams to keep our fleet running during these challenging 12 months and we thank them for their commitment and efforts. MMA is proud to be a signatory of the Neptune Declaration and we will continue to take actions to support our seafarers across our regions of operation, with a clear focus on their safety and wellbeing.”

Liberian Registry: Chief Operating Officer, Alfonso Castillero: “I am very proud to have the Liberian Registry join as signatory to the Neptune Declaration. It is an honor for us to sign, and we pledge to continue our efforts in facilitating crew changes aboard our 4,600 vessels around the globe. COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges, and we have been fighting for the facilitation of crew changes since the early days of the pandemic, working closely with industry bodies such as ICS and ITF, port and coastal States, and with the owners and operators of Liberian flagged vessels.”

Lloyd’s Register: CEO Nick Brown: “Despite efforts being made by international organisations, unions, companies and governments around the world to resolve the crew change crisis, further action is urgently required. It is vital that we safeguard and protect the committed key workers who maintain our global maritime supply chain and have been on the frontline throughout this pandemic.”

Thomas Miller: Hugo Wynn Williams, Chairman: “The Neptune Declaration is a vitally important document, highlighting a worsening humanitarian crisis among seafarers around the globe. Collectively, the industry recognises a solution needs to be found to enable crews to join and leave their ships and to travel home safely.”

Pole Star: “At Pole Star, we understand the importance of our supply chains to the movement of goods, including medical supplies and hospital equipment, across our oceans. Additionally, as a longstanding member of the maritime industry, Pole Star recognises the debt we owe to our seafaring colleagues for enabling business continuity throughout the past year.”

International Seaways: President and CEO, Lois K. Zabrocky: “The world’s seafarers have continued to provide an essential service, facilitating global trade throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are proud to support this critical initiative to help resolve the current humanitarian crisis at sea. Seaways continues to prioritize the well-being of our crews and we thank them for their dedication and commitment to maintaining the highest level of professional standards amidst extremely challenging circumstances. This declaration is a crucial step toward getting seafarers home to their families safely and on time.”

Zeymarine: CEO, Umut Çınar: “We are well aware of the humanitarian crisis that the seafarers face because of the pandemic. They don’t only play a key role in the global trade, they also have proved that the role of the seafarers in providing medical supplies for the different parts of the World during the pandemic was crucial. We sincerely believe that the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change will help to resolve this humanitarian crisis. As Zeymarine, we are proud to be a signatory. We are hopeful that the number of the signatories will continue to increase rapidly.”

StratumFive: “We hope, at the very least, the strength of the declaration communicates the respect and genuine concern the industry has for the well being of the seafarers so severely impacted by the restrictions on crew exchanges caused by the pandemic. This needs to be communicated to them. More importantly we need to find ways to attract the attention of those outside the shipping community to the extent of this crisis.”

MSC: CEO Soren Toft: “As we move in to the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and well-being of our seafarers is at the top of our minds. The urgent matter of facilitating seafarer repatriations and crew changes is a vital one that needs immediate attention. On top of MSC’s efforts last year to bring the critical issue of crew changes to the attention of governments, we believe it is more important than ever to appreciate the valuable contribution that seafarers bring to the global economy and to ensure that these people are recognised as key workers. Seafarers and shipping have kept the world moving amid COVID-19 lockdowns and it is imperative that governments give full support to alleviate the crewing crisis and keep trade flowing unhindered.”

MISC: President and Group CEO, Yee Yang Chien: “Seafarers – our front liners of the sea, have continued moving essential cargoes throughout the entire pandemic to keep the world going. No words can sum up their commitment and selfless dedication despite the many operational challenges faced in addition to the prolonged days at sea. Today, we – MISC, AET and Eaglestar take a step forward; unified as a signatory to the Neptune Declaration to further intensify our efforts to resolve the dilemma of seafarers being stranded at sea which has greatly affected their physical and mental wellbeing. As a responsible corporate citizen, we take our role as a signatory with great commitment as it is vital that we join forces to ensure the sustainability of the entire maritime value chain. We are confident of arriving at solutions to resolve the long-standing issues and we know that the Neptune Declaration will bring forward a positive impact.”

PSA International: Tan Chong Meng, Group CEO: “In our interconnected and interdependent world, multi-stakeholder collaboration and action are key. PSA stands alongside our industry partners and stakeholders as we commit to ensuring the well-being of the seafarers in our spheres of influence, and to do our part to enable the globally inclusive, safe and sustainable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Stena Bulk: Erik Hånell, President and CEO: “As one of the world’s leading tanker shipping companies, we acknowledge our responsibility to ensure that the crew change crisis is resolved as soon as possible. At Stena Bulk our highest priority is to protect the health and safety of our crew and shoreside employees. We show nothing but appreciation to all our colleagues on board. These are the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 crisis, supplying the world in the most difficult of times. We understand that crew wellbeing and crew change are crucial topics for the shipping community to discuss and address. As such, the Neptune Declaration is fully aligned with our priorities and values and is a natural initiative for us to be involved in. We’ve always supported the idea that shipping needs to embrace more partnership and collaboration to tackle the industry’s biggest challenges. We believe that the Neptune Declaration is a much-needed initiative that will allow us to join forces with other industry leaders, partners and friends to facilitate crew changes and keep global supply chains functioning.”

ING: Stephen Fewster, Global Head of Shipping: “We are proud to be a signatory to the Global Maritime Forum’s Neptune Declaration. With 90% of global goods transported by sea, we believe it is everyone’s responsibility and duty to support and protect seafarers who are the frontline workers of the shipping sector. Crew change is critical to the safety and wellbeing of the crew as well as ensuring the smooth facilitation of global trade. We will work with all appropriate organisations and authorities to highlight the restrictions and plight of seafarers.”

G2 Ocean: CEO, Arthur English: “I am pleased to see so many parties coming together to support our seafarers. By joining forces, we stand a better chance to put an end to this intolerable situation. Ensuring normal operations during these difficult times caused by the Covid-19 pandemic would not be possible without the dedication and hard work of the seafarers aboard our vessels. Together with our owners and industry partners, we will mobilise our resources to put this crisis to an end – it is our collective and individual responsibility.”

IMC Industrial Group: Frederik Guttormsen, Senior Director, Shipping: “We at IMC Shipping are deeply concerned about the thousands of international seafarers around the world being impacted by the lack of crew changes and the impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of these seafarers. All of us have a shared responsibility and important roles to play to ensure this humanitarian crisis gets resolved as soon as possible.  Together, we need to build a more resilient maritime supply chain to ensure and protect the rights and wellbeing of our seafarers.”

AqualisBraemar LOC: David Wells CEO says: “The work of the seafarer and their impact on all of our lives often goes unheard of, but it should not be forgotten. Seafarers continue to keep our global supply lines going throughout the pandemic, despite emotional and physical difficulty due to travel restrictions. As a company with many ex-seafarers amongst our staff, we are proud to support this initiative, which will help de-risk operations at sea and safeguard the men and women on ships all over the world.”

International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA): Allen Leatt, Chief Executive: “Since January 2020, IMCA has played a very active role in addressing the crisis at international level with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO); at national level with over 55 governments which have significant offshore production operations; and at a direct intervention level in assisting mercy repatriation efforts with crews stuck in West Africa and the Middle East. As the Neptune Declaration identifies, the situation is now getting worse but can be resolved without increased risk to the health of the general public if there is the political will to address the crisis at an international level.”

Ardmore Shipping: Mark. Cameron, COO: “At Ardmore, we recognise that seafarers are critical to our success and are on the front line of global trade. We saw how seafarers were impacted in 2020 with extended contracts, limited or no shore leave, lack of Wifi and contact with home, among many other different scenarios. We need a real solution and action to ensure we use our learnings from the past year to build a better, safer and more resilient supply chain that has seafarer wellbeing at its heart. We have a shared responsibility to care for international seafarers around the world. Signing the Neptune Declaration is a way we can help solve the international crew change crisis. Huge progress can be made with a collaborative response and this is essential to solving this crisis. We hope this declaration will not only encourage the shipping industry to act, but also enlist the vital support of wider stakeholders, from airlines to governments. It is time to make a difference together.”