The most recent offering in the WMU Alumni Webinar series took place on 29 May with the topic of COVID-19 and Shipping: Maritime Law and Policy Highlights. Over 500 participants from 93 countries, and all continents, registered for the event that due to the subject matter was opened beyond WMU Alumni to general registration from the public.
The webinar addressed the primary impact the pandemic has had on maritime safety and security, and disruptions in the global supply chain that are severely affecting the normal course of the shipping business. Governments have been forced to impose a number of extraordinary law and policy measures and the retreat of countries to their borders raises many issues in terms of the international nature of shipping that is cross-border by definition. The webinar highlighted the policy measures adopted by States and the international community to address pressing maritime issues that have arisen out of these unprecedented circumstances, such as the recourse to the concept of force majeure to protect business and the recognition of seafarers’ rights in times of a global pandemic.
Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, President of WMU, opened the webinar noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a great equalizer, and a challenge across the globe. Two million seafarers are key workers in the global supply chain. They are essential workers and are vital for the global supply chain and world trade. She emphasized the need for countries to ratify and implement the international standards set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006) as amended and in particular with respect to access to medical care on board ship and ashore, as well as repatriation. “This is not the time to pull back, close borders, and not allow global trade to operate smoothly,” she said, highlighting that United Nations organizations – the ILO, IMO, and ICAO – have come together, and jointly agreed with support of the industry, including ITF, ICS and other international shipping organizations to develop common guidance for the industry under the pandemic. Existing WHO guidelines are also to be taken into account.“ We can be proud of the maritime community and how it has come together to ensure respect for the rights of seafarers in these challenging times,” said the President. She also highlighted that under the MLC, 2006, a “seafarer” is defined as “any person who is employed or engaged or works in any capacity on board a ship to which the Convention applies.” This includes all those who work on board cruise ships irrespective of the capacity in which they work.
Katie Higginbottom, Head of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust was a guest speaker for the webinar. She reiterated the need for global support for the maritime industry and seafarers at the government level, emphasizing that their key role is largely unrecognized outside of the maritime cluster or sector. “There has been cooperation at the international, inter-governmental level in the maritime sector, but a difficulty in reaching outside the sector. Companies are doing their best, but are challenged by the lack of flights, and various different requirements around testing, quarantines, and lockdowns which prevent free movement,” she said.
The webinar was moderated by Professor Max Mejia: Director of PhD Programme, Associate Academic Dean and Head of the Maritime Law and Policy Specialization. WMU Professor Laura Carballo Pineiro, Nippon Foundation Chair of Maritime Labour Law and Policy, addressed the topic of Health Protection vs Human and Labour rights, emphasizing the following needs:
- Make the WHO International Health Regulations, 2005, and related WHO/ILO/ICAO/UNCTAD statements and guidelines work. While the international legal framework supports crew changes and respect for other seafarers’ rights, State cooperation is essential to enforce them.
- Support shipping companies to secure employment and global fair competition. The COVID-19 crisis is also an economic crisis and shipping companies are facing major liquidity problems that require public and private measures to save them from insolvency.
- Include seafarers, regardless of nationality, in national support schemes. While some States are already providing economic support, such as wage subsidies, only national seafarers are benefiting from them leaving others in a very precarious situation.
- Prioritize secured maritime creditors’ protection in case of insolvency. Shipping companies in distress might resort to (pre)-insolvency proceedings to restructure or refinance their debt. While these proceedings might stay enforcement proceedings over debtor’s assets, maritime creditors should be granted a special treatment for securing interrupted international trade.
Associate Professor Aref Fakhry addressed the topic of IMO conventions’ application and enforcement. His presentation centered on whether the crisis caused by the pandemic signals the brink of a collapse in the maritime regulatory framework, taking into consideration whether IMO conventions provide for the current state of emergency. The crucial issues of health inspections, quarantine, and disembarkation of sick persons were discussed in light of the provisions of the IMO’s Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL), 1965, as amended.
Looking ahead, Associate Professor Fakhry suggested that the effect of the pandemic would give impetus to an expansion of the place and role of sanitation and public health, as well as digitisation and trade facilitation, in maritime law and policy. On a positive note, countries and world institutions could leverage the crisis in order to push through much-needed changes in the maritime environment.
Several questions posed by participants were answered by the presenters during the webinar. A poll was also administered and indicated that the majority of participants felt that the existing international maritime regulatory framework is insufficient for dealing with the repercussions of pandemics, and that the top priority in the pandemic recovery period should be implementing sustainable business models.
The webinar was the fifth offering in the WMU Alumni Webinar series that was launched in the fall of 2019. The next webinar with the topic of Search and Rescue in the High North Region will take place on 11 June 14:00-15:00 CEST. Space for the webinar is limited, but WMU graduates are permitted to register one other professional colleague. If you are a WMU alumnus and would like more information, email email@example.com.