The Day of the Seafarer may not be a day that is at the forefront of public consciousness, but it should be.

The coronavirus has devastated lives on a global scale and perhaps irreparably shifted our understanding of our health and freedom. However, whilst some parts of the globe are attempting to regain some sense of normality, the voices of many seafarers who have been trapped at sea have not been heard. The International Maritime Organisation estimations paint a bleak picture, with statistics pointing to 400,000 seafarers trapped on their ships far beyond their contractual obligations, due to border closures, lockdowns and preventive measures have been imposed by governments, aiming to reduce the exposure to COVID-19 risk. It is good to see that some headway is being made tackling the issue, with some seafarers being rescued and allowed to return home, but the crisis is far from over.

The effects of Covid-19 have inadvertently created a modern form of forced labour in the maritime industry. The ongoing evaluation of risks to human rights across all industries is critical, as underlined by the recent proposal by the European Union on mandatory human rights due diligence.

Respecting the rights of seafarers is vital to the ability of global companies to produce and offer essential consumer goods, such as food and hygiene products, but the seafarer crisis goes beyond a supply chain issue for businesses. As individuals, we are all dependent on the critical work of seafarers: over 90% of global trade is moved via maritime transportation.

As a global consumer goods company reliant on the maritime industry to do business, Unilever is speaking up and asking governments to take action to protect those who we have depended upon for so many years. We led this call to action among The Consumer Goods Forum’s Board of Directors last September, which wrote to the United Nations Secretary General urging the UN to work more quickly with governments to address this developing crisis. We are also a founding member of the CGF’s Human Rights Coalition – Working to End Forced Labour.

The psychological and physical well-being of these men and women simply must now be prioritised. It is of the utmost importance that seafarers are vaccinated. The idea of being ‘stranded at sea’ is an intangible concept. But for the seafarers who have been trapped on a boat, unable to see their family and friends, it is all too real. 

The words of Hedi Marzougui, an American captain who was recently trapped at sea and interviewed by the UN, encapsulate this feeling . He has painted an uncomfortable picture: “the longer you stay here, the more fatigued you get physically. The hours, weeks and months start to add up”. His statement that “we also have rights as human beings, we have families of our own … we’re not robots, we shouldn’t be treated as second class citizens” is striking.

Calls for seafarers to be classified as key workers have, so far, fallen on deaf ears in many countries, despite the recently adopted UN resolution, but it is a much-deserved title.  The global trade routes in which they operate have kept food and essential products in homes across the world. Just as we celebrate the brilliant work of nurses, cleaners and doctors on the frontline, the work of seafarers should be equally celebrated and their right to work safely respected.

As a signatory company of The Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, we recognise our shared responsibility to campaign for this crisis to be resolved as quickly as possible. Just as the shipping industry has a duty to step up its efforts to ensure that it does not facilitate the abuse of seafarers’ rights, we as a business have a duty to champion this cause. At its core, this is a humanitarian issue and one that governments, organisations, and businesses cannot and should not ignore.

As a consumer goods company, we believe that the most effective way of addressing this challenge and building a more resilient maritime logistics chain is to support the shipping industry to work together with industry stakeholders, organizations and with governments to implement solutions that work in practice. This International Day of the Seafarer, we hope this message resonates with others impacted by this crisis, visibly or not, so we can collectively amplify the voices of those trapped at sea and work to bring them home.

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