According to International Labour Organization (ILO), countries need to improve the working conditions and earnings of key workers – who were essential during the COVID-19 crisis – to fully reflect their contribution to society and their importance in the daily functioning of economies.

During the COVID-19 crisis key workers suffered higher mortality rates than non-key workers, overall. Among different categories of key workers mortality rates varied. The findings reveal the importance of occupational safety and health (OSH) protection, as well as the greater security associated with working in formal workplaces, with collective representation.

Among the keyworkers, are seafarers, who continued to perform their jobs, day in and day out, even at the height of the pandemic, often at great personal risk according to ILO Director-General, Gilbert F. Houngbo.

"Valuing key workers means ensuring that they receive adequate pay and work in good conditions. Decent work is an objective for all workers but it is particularly critical for key workers, who provide vital necessities and services both in good times and bad," ILO Director-General commented.

In particular, during the COVID-19 crisis, the industry stakeholders (i.e. ICS,IMO, ETF, ECSA )joined forces so as seafarers to be recognized as key workers. From the beginning of the pandemic, the ILO, together with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization called on governments to facilitate crew changes and designate seafarers as key workers providing essential services.


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In October 2021, IMO MSC 104 approved a draft IMO Assembly resolution consolidating issues related to crew change, requiring also access to medical care and urging for ʺkey workerʺ designation and seafarers’ prioritization for COVID-19 vaccination.

Cyprus, Maldives were among the first countries that took considerable action. Nevertheless, by May 2022,
only 68 of the 178 IMO Member States and Associate Members had recognized seafarers as key workers. This lack of recognition across the globe severely hampered the ability of ships to effect crew changes, resulting in an increase in the number of seafarers required to stay on board for long periods following the conclusion of their contracts.

ILO report explains that when the pandemic began, immediate needs concerned managing active cases on board; this included the use of PPE and the implementation of social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus. At the time, however, access to PPE was limited and advice on its use conflicting.  Access to medical attention was an additional factor compounding the impact of the pandemic on seafarers’ lives. While infected seafarers with mild cases could recover onboard, those with more serious conditions often faced difficulties accessing medical care ashore.

Numerous seafarers in need of urgent assistance as a result of other illnesses or dental problems were also denied medical care. At the peak of the crisis, 400,000 seafarers were unable to leave their ships. By July 2021, this number had declined to about 250,000. Over the course of the pandemic, some seafarers remained on ships for more than 18 months.

Furthermore,  ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations strongly encouraged governments to recognize seafarers as key workers and to put in practice the consequences of such a qualification, in order to restore the respect of their rights as provided for in the MLC, 2006.


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To ensure the continuity of essential services during future pandemics or other shocks such as natural disasters, the report recommends greater investment in the physical infrastructure, productive capacity and human resources of key sectors.

Among other recommendations, the report calls for:

  • Ensuring that Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) systems cover all branches of economic activity and all workers, with clear duties and rights specified, through collaboration between government, workers’ and employers’ representatives.
  • Improving pay to compensate for key worker undervaluation and to reduce the wage gap between key and non-key employees, including through negotiated or statutory minimum wages.
  • Guaranteeing safe and predictable working hours through regulation, including collective bargaining.
  • Adapting legal frameworks so that all workers, regardless of their employment status and contractual arrangements, are covered by social protection, especially paid sick leave.
  • Increasing access to training so that key workers can carry out their work effectively and safely.

Furthermore, the report outlines a framework that countries can use, as part of a process of social dialogue, to identify gaps in decent work and economic resilience in respect of their key workers and essential services and to develop a national strategy to address these through strengthened policies and investment

Source: Safety4sea



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Issue 83 of Robban Assafina

(Jan./ Feb. 2023)


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