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Health and safety

Nautilus FAQs on Covid-19 Coronavirus

26 March 2020

This Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) article sets out some general guidance for members, mostly relying on the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) and Seafarers' Employment Agreement (SEA). However, note that there will be differences between flag states' laws

For specific advice based on your own individual circumstances and SEA please contact your union official.

Thursday March 26 - Questions 3, 4, 5, 7 and 10 amended to reflect updated UK government advice

1. I am due to join my ship in a Covid-19 hotspot, can I refuse?

Refusal to join a ship would be considered misconduct or gross misconduct under many SEAs even with such a looming public health concern.  Check your SEA and any applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), to see if there are any relevant clauses.

Employers demanding travel to a hotspot could be in contravention of national government travel advice, risk corporate travel insurance cover and fall foul of employee health and safety responsibilities under the MLC. Ensure your employer is aware of your concerns.

It may be that, in extreme cases, refusing to join a ship in a hotspot would be reasonable on health and safety grounds. However, a bad employer may still wish to treat this as a disciplinary issue.

Affected members should contact Nautilus immediately, which can then put their concerns to their employer.

2. Can I refuse to join my ship if, as part of the rotation, it is going into a Covid-19 hotspot?

Under the MLC ship owners have a duty to protect the health and safety of seafarers.

However, it may be harder to justify refusing to join a ship that will visit a hot spot as part of its rotation, as the risk of contracting the virus could be considered minimal if there is no contact with the local population.

3. Do I need to self-isolate when I off-sign from a ship that has been to a Covid-19 hotspot?

Previous guidance issued by the UK Government determined the need for people to self-isolate depending on whether they were exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus and whether they had recently visited an affected country.

This guidance has since been replaced with mandatory measures that were introduced by the government on 23 March. These measures include:

  1. Requiring people to stay at home, except for very limited purposes
  2. Closing non-essential shops and community spaces
  3. Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public

These measures are compulsory and can be enforced by the police who have the power to issue fines and disperse public gatherings. Further information can be found here

When returning to the UK, check travel advice from your country of residence, which is subject to change.

The UK government is currently advising British nationals against all non-essential international travel.

This exceptional advice has been issued because the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has led to unprecedented international border closures and other restrictions.

International and domestic freight transport (including by air, ship, road and rail, including roll-on/roll-off transports) is classified by UK government as an essential activity in the context of its travel advice. The advice against non-essential travel is not intended to apply to international and domestic freight transport. Seafarers have been included in the government definition of 'key worker', which means they are exempt from certain restrictions that have been put in place.   

FCO travel advice remains under constant review and is being updated regularly with the latest information on restrictions and other measures in place in each country/territory. Check the latest travel advice and sign up for email alerts for all countries where you are travelling.

4. My employer is refusing to pay me after ordering mandatory self-isolation, is this legal?

If an employer orders you to self-isolate following a visit to a Covid-19 hotspot, you should still be paid in accordance with your SEA.

An employer should not order you to take unpaid contractual or statutory leave for which you would normally be paid. Any contravention of this can be challenged with the assistance of Nautilus.

The government has announced a support package for those who have suffered financial detriment because of Covid-19. Affected members should contact their industrial official for advice.

5. My employer is refusing off-signing and repatriation at the end of my contract due to Covid-19 fears at port, is this legal?

Under the MLC you have a right to be repatriated once your tour of duty is finished.

An employer can only refuse that if, under your SEA, there is a clause that permits it to extend the tour of duty.

However, what if you would rather not get off at a hotspot? Although the MLC states that seafarers cannot forego annual leave and that they have the right to be repatriated if they have been onboard for 12 months (effectively 11 months when annual leave is subtracted) the ILO has indicated that flag states have the flexibility to make exceptions to the prohibition against forgoing annual leave for imperative reasons of public health, such as the need to contain coronavirus.

However, this should only be used with appropriate safeguards to protect seafarers, such as obtaining their consent and ensuring that they do not lose their accrued annual leave or right to repatriation. Check with your flag state to see if ship owners can extend this flexibility to you without being in danger of breaching their MLC obligations.

Your employer will be liable to pay you for any such extension of your tour of duty.

The UK government has stated that it is committed to upholding its obligations under the international conventions regarding the transit and transfer of seafarers and their right to access shore leave.

6. What if I get sick or contract the Covid-19 virus while onboard, what are my rights?

You have a duty to protect yourself while at sea and a duty to protect others who may be affected by your activities.

You should follow the general advice published by the World Health Organization (WHO), The International Maritime Health Association (IMHA) and The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). There may also be a company policy (check their website) and perhaps flag state advice

You should also seek advice from the onboard medical officer and inform your line manager/master.

7. I am feeling unwell onboard and due to dock in a port that is refusing shore access, what can I do?

MLC states that when you are in port you have a right to visit a medical doctor 'where practicable'. In an MLC-ratifying state you also have the right to shore leave and to access shore-based welfare facilities.

Flag states do have the right to refuse shore leave if they have reason to believe that a vessel may be carrying an infectious disease and, any local restrictions in force limiting non-essential travel would apply equally to seafarers. In these instances it would not be unreasonable to restrict shore leave.

If you have any concern regarding these matters, then contact Nautilus for advice.

The ship owner is also obliged to provide you with free onboard medical care.

8. I have been hospitalised abroad with Covid-19, is my employer liable for medical bills and sick pay?

The ship owner has a duty to pay for your medical care and treatment, therapeutic appliances, and board and lodging until you have recovered. You will also be entitled to full pay until you are repatriated. After repatriation you will be entitled to pay (in whole or in part – check flag state law) until at least 16 weeks from the date you became sick.

If the ship owner refuses unreasonably to allow for medical checks or medical help, that would be a serious breach of flag state MLC laws, rendering the ship owner liable to prosecution.

While in a foreign port ships will also be governed by the port state’s MLC laws. So an MLC onshore complaint may also be lodged with the local maritime authority.

Action from your union can help enforce these mechanisms.

9. I am home on leave and ready to rejoin my ship, however the ship owner is refusing to send me back, what can I do?

Firstly, contact Nautilus, as such cases are likely to be very fact-sensitive, and require industrial and legal intervention. Nautilus will try to get you back to work, or at least ensure that you are paid if it is the ship owner that is preventing your return.

Some SEAs allow the ship owner to suspend work for 'force majeure' or unforeseen circumstances without pay, depending on which national laws the SEA is governed by.

However, if your SEA is subject to UK law, and there is no such clause, then you should be entitled to continued payment.

10. My Certificate of Competency/Medical certificate is due to be renewed. What do I do?

The MCA has implemented temporary measures to ensure that seafarers certificates continue to remain valid for sea service.

Any seafarer who has completed all the requirements for a UK CoC can email their application to the MCA in order to be issued with a temporary CoC valid for six months.

Any seafarer who has been unable to complete any aspect of STCW safety training due to disruption caused by Covid-19 can apply to the MCA for an exemption. The process to be followed will depend on individual circumstances. 

Don't forget...

Members with any concerns about coronavirus should contact their industrial official or the Nautilus 24/7 helpline.

Members are also urged to check their ship owner's responsibilities under flag state laws, including those imposed under implementation of the MLC on matters such as health and safety, medical care, sick pay and repatriation. Flag states that have ratified the MLC are required to ensure that ship owners provide their seafarers with adequate measures for protection of their health, and that they have access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst on board. This reflects the general duty of care of employers to provide a safe place and system of work for their employees.

If your flag state does not uphold its responsibilities under MLC it can be reported to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Contact your union for help in this situation.  If your ship owner does not comply with its MLC responsibilities, you can make a complaint to your manager/master, flag state or port authority.

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