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IMO/ILO Work at Sea Conference stresses seafarer, fisher rights

First joint high-level IMO/ILO conference addresses the need to ensure decent conditions for those working at sea.

The first joint IMO/ILO Conference on ensuring the rights of seafarers and fishers was held at IMO Headquarters in London on 13 November. (Photo:

Protecting seafarers and fishers’ rights and working conditions now – while preparing them for a digitalized and decarbonized future – were key themes explored during the first International Maritime Organization (IMO)/International Labour Organization (ILO) Conference on Work at Sea, which took place at IMO Headquarters in London on 13 November.

“The professionals who work at sea, the seafarers, fishers and other maritime personnel, are the lifeblood of shipping and their wellbeing is paramount. I have often referred to seafarers as the unsung heroes of the global economy. They are the ones who ensure that goods and food are shipped and delivered safely and effectively around the globe. They are on the frontline, a responsibility that has been particularly highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without them, shipping simply stops,” said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim.

“If we do not ensure seafarers' rights and well-being, we will not be able to retain the existing seafarers in the profession and will certainly not be in a position to attract any new ones, which would have huge and long-lasting consequences,” Mr. Lim said.

The first IMO/ILO Conference on Work at Sea forms part of coordinated work by the two United Nations agencies to acknowledge the pivotal role of seafaring as imperative for future global development and to ensure robust protections for those who work at sea. It follows a high-level meeting in May between IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim and the ILO Director-General, Gilbert F Houngbo.

“If we want to retain and attract seafarers, including young persons and women, we need to deliver on a new social contract that puts seafarers at the heart of the shipping industry,” Mr. Houngbo said.

“Fishers continue to face many decent work deficits, including for some, denial of their fundamental principles and rights at work. ILO and IMO, together with the Food and Agriculture Organization, have expanded our cooperation in this sector. However, progress remains slow. We therefore need to accelerate action towards the ratification and implementation of key ILO and IMO fishing Conventions. Many seafarers, for their part, continue to be confronted with unpaid wages, long periods of service on board, fatigue, limited access to social connectivity, abandonment, criminalization, bullying and harassment, denial of shore leave, lack of access to welfare facilities and fraudulent practices by recruitment agencies,” Mr. Houngbo said.

The Conference provided a forum for the sharing of views and experience on ensuring the rights of seafarers and fishers; identifying gaps in the current regulatory framework; and explored how Governments, industry, IGOs and NGOs can collaborate to improve the relevant international maritime legal framework.

His Excellency Binali Yıldırım, Former Prime Minister of the Republic of Türkiye, highlighted that “the global regulatory framework is not sufficient to ensure rights of seafarers and fishers unless they are implemented and enforced,” setting the scene for the Conference.

Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) represented the industry and the workforce, respectively, during the opening session.

Taking part throughout the day were representatives from shipping companies, academia, and governments of flag and port States along with those States which traditionally supply much of the maritime workforce.

Key themes were responsible management, the enforcement of existing regulations, further ratification of fishing related treaties and the need to prepare seafarers and fishers for the digitalized and decarbonized future. The need for collaboration and cooperation between all maritime partners was emphasized throughout.

“International cooperation is crucial, requiring collaboration between governments, international organizations, and the shipping industry. Challenges such as crew change, fatigue, mental health support, and fair wages require joint efforts for effective solutions. The close cooperation between IMO and ILO is more critical than ever, enabling the pooling of resources and expertise to address challenges in recruiting and retaining personnel at sea,” said IMO Secretary-General Lim.


Ensuring rights at sea

A session on best practices for responsible ship management concluded that to make seafaring an attractive career option requires responsible ship management to deliver improved working and living conditions. Lessons have been learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular the paramount need to designate seafarers as key workers.

Speakers highlighted that fishers in particular need better protection, given that fishing is more hazardous than shipping, with thousands of fatalities reported annually. Fishing is impacted by forced labour, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and vague national regulations.

The maritime regulatory framework

The continued lack of a binding international instrument in force regarding maritime safety of fishing vessels was highlighted in a session on ILO and IMO Conventions for the fishing sector. IMO is currently promoting accession to the Cape Town Agreement, which will provide global safety standards for fishing vessels. It is expected that the conditions for entry into force will be met in the near future.

Working to secure high numbers of ratifications of all relevant instruments is of paramount importance in order to achieve a level playing field for the maritime workforce at sea. These instruments include IMO’s STCW-F Convention on training of fishers, ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention, FAO's Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA), 2009, (these three are all in force); as well as IMO's 2012 Cape Town Agreement, which is not yet in force. Fishing is still one of the most hazardous occupations, while basic conditions on board fishing vessels fall below adequate standards. “It is time we see fishers as human beings,” said Ms. Luz Baz, ITF Inspector, Spain.

Many speakers highlighted the recent huge spike of reported abandonment cases to the joint IMO/ILO database which can be accessed here. However, there is a 'lack of MLC, 2006 compulsory insurance implementation' present in half of the reported cases. Therefore, further enforcement by port State control officers of the abandonment insurance requirement is a priority, including to enforce the due diligence obligation to maintain compulsory insurance by the relevant Member States and to make it part of training exercises for port State control officers.

The need was stressed for companies, under the ISM Code, to develop robust interventions that monitor and manage fatigue risks, reducing the chance of fatigue-related incidents or impaired psychological wellbeing. The responsibility of flag States to ensure that ships under their flag operate with safe crewing levels was emphasized by Mr. Benito Núñez Quintanilla, Director General for the Merchant Marine, Spain. Spain’s minimum safe manning certificate results in more people on similar ships compared with other flag States, he said, suggesting there was room for improvement and more prescriptive, mandatory requirements for calculation of safe manning levels.

Ensuring workforce welfare as shipping technology evolves As the maritime sector shifts towards environmental sustainability and digitalization, and with a shortage of skilled seafarers, it was agreed there is a pressing need for advanced training programmes in automation, artificial intelligence (AI), data analysis, digital navigation, environmental compliance, safety, and cybersecurity awareness for professionals.

Connectivity on board ships was highlighted as a key factor in wellbeing and welfare for seafarers, especially in terms of attracting future generations to pursue careers at sea. Amongst future projects to ensure continued IMO/ILO collaboration on these issues, joint working groups have been established to deal with bullying and harassment, criminalization and fair treatment and medical examination of fishing vessel personnel.

Looking to the future The green transition in maritime is not only technological but also human. A “Baseline Training Framework for Seafarers in Decarbonization Project” is being developed by IMO and the Maritime Just Transition Task Force, to prepare seafarers and officers for operating the ships which will be running on the zero and near-zero emission fuels which will needed to achieve the ambitions set under the 2023 IMO Strategy on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships. The decarbonization transition must be safe for seafarers, speakers agreed.

Read more:

  • Event page: including full programme of speakers.

  • IMO Secretary-General opening speech / IMO Secretary-General closing remarks

  • ILO Director-General opening speechILODGOpeningSpeech.pdf / ILO Director-General closing speechILODGClosingSpeech.pdf

  • Photos:

  • Watch again:


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