Sustainability Takes Center Stage for World Maritime Day

IMO headquarters
IMO headquarters (file image)

Published Sep 23, 2020 7:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

This year, the IMO has selected sustainability as its focus for World Maritime Day, centering its message on "sustainable shipping for a sustainable planet." The day's online conference event will showcase industry leaders as they reflect on their work towards a sustainable shipping sector. 

IMO will highlight its own efforts on environmental impact reduction, like the 2020 low-sulfur fuel rule and the Ballast Water Management Convention. It will also use the occasion to promote its nonbinding advocacy work, like IMO MEPC's ambition for future CO2 emissions reduction.

IMO also plans to use the day to raise awareness of the plight of the world's seafarers during the COVID-19 crisis. An estimated 300,000 crewmembers are stuck at sea because of national coronavirus lockdowns, and many are working well the legal 11-month limit imposed by the MLC; their replacements are stuck on shore, unable to take up a position on board and earn income.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us, with unprecedented impacts on our lives, our economies and our societies. At IMO we have observed and attempted to address the impacts on the shipping industry and especially seafarers. In these challenging times, the ability of shipping services and seafarers to deliver essential goods, including medical supplies, food and fuel is central to responding to, and overcoming this crisis," said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim in a statement. "We need to capitalize on [our] willingness to work together as we move forward, supporting shipping, seafarers and the maritime sector to fulfil their responsibilities."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed Lim's remarks. l"Despite the unprecedented conditions brought about by the pandemic, seafarers have continued to tirelessly support the often invisible global logistics chain. Physically and mentally exhausted, away from their families and loved ones, their time at sea has now been extended far beyond the standards stipulated in international conventions, with some tours of duty now stretching more than 17 months," said Guterres in a statement. "I renew my appeal to governments to address their plight by formally designating seafarers and other marine personnel as 'key workers' [and] ensuring safe crew changes."

IMO is also sponsoring a World Maritime Day panel discussion on crew change, along with the ILO, the UNGC, the ICS and the ITF. Cabinet-level maritime and transport ministers from Canada, France, the Philippines, France and Kenya will be in attendance. 

Labor leaders decry continued crew change crisis

Labor leaders placed particular emphasis on the rights of seafarers on World Maritime Day. The European Transport Workers' Federation (an ITF regional affiliate) used the occasion to call attention to seafarers' well-being, and it connected the crew change crisis with pre-existing concerns about open registry flagging.

"The crew change crisis is endangering the safety of entire crews and even the environment, as is being currently investigated in the latest cases of oil spills. The lack of maritime stakeholders who would take responsibility for the safety of the crew and the environment partly stems from the common use of flags of convenience," wrote ETF. "The system of registering vessels with countries that lack regulations protecting workers and the environment ends up protecting polluters and exploiters. If we are serious about creating a genuinely sustainable future of transport, systemic change that addresses this dangerous practice is critical."

Sharper criticism still came from the ITF Asia Pacific Region. "The 'pleading' of the IMO has not altered the course of the world order in favor of the seafarers, who continue to be at the most mere statistics," said Abdulgani Y. Serang, head of the National Union of Seafarers of India and the vice chair of ITF Asia Pacific Region. "Long hours of work, extension of contracts after extension, stress, fatigue, wellness issues, trauma are the new normal for seafarers who have kept and continue to keep the lifelines of the world up and running . . . And in return they are treated with suspicion, contempt and get turned away from the very ports that just took in the goods [they] happily brought."

According to Serang, the industry and its regulators need to focus on fixing the crew change crisis first. "Only after that let us speak of sustainability of shipping," he said.