A new government initiative in the United Arab Emirates aims to improve the rights of seafarers in recognition of the ongoing challenges sailors face amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ‘Supporting our Blue Army’, launched by the UAE’s Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, aims to improve the quality of life for the thousands of international sailors onboard tankers that pass through the UAE’s crucial waterways every year.
Under the initiative, the UAE will become one of the first countries to recognize and appreciate marine crews and put them on an equal footing with priority categories such as medical personnel, especially in circumstances when seafarers play a key role in mitigating the devastating effects on the global economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Suhail al-Mazrouei, Minister of Energy and Infrastructure in the UAE.
Across the region and globally, the aftermath of the pandemic – including border closures and immigration restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 – has meant a longer spell in solitary onboard, with many sailors left marooned at sea despite finishing their normal tours of duty.
The pandemic has also spelt another disaster for those seafarers who were already stranded at sea – abandoned without pay, fuel and supplies – due to ongoing legal disputes, often as a result of vessel owners not paying wages and abandoning vessels with outstanding debts, leaving sailors unable to legally dock in ports.
Earlier this year, Al Arabiya English reported how a crew of 19 seafarers went on a hunger strike for months in protest over unpaid wages and spent more than two years onboard an abandoned cargo ship in Kuwait.
The UAE’s ‘Supporting our Blue Army’ initiative will protect seafarers’ rights with ship owners and operating companies, said al-Mazrouei.
“When talking about the maritime transport sector, the UAE is a unique model. It ranks the ninth best global maritime hub and has some of the largest and most developed ports in the region in terms of infrastructure and digital systems.
“The UAE is a logistics hub linking global shipping lines and has the major share of the ships that call on the region’s ports, with more than 21,000 ships every year. Over 20,000 local and international maritime companies operate in the UAE with over 17 million containers handled in the UAE ports annually.”
“These operations add significant economic returns to the national economy. All these achievements cannot be made without the dedication of thousands of seafarers who arrive to the UAE’s waters on board ships from across the world.”
The new initiative will add to the UAE’s existing laws that aim to protect the rights of sailors at sea, said al-Mazrouei.
“In line with the Ministry’s role and our responsibility to set legislation and laws related to the maritime sector, as well as ensure compliance to these laws, we have been keen that our legal system supports seafarers who contribute to the UAE’s economic development. The latest achievement was the Cabinet resolution regarding marine wrecks and violating ships, which obliges all UAE flag ships and foreign flag ships in UAE waters or calling UAE ports to guarantee the rights of seafarers and fulfill their needs.”
He said that the Ministry will not tolerate any ship owner or operating company that fails to perform its duties towards seafarers or abandons them on board ships on UAE shores.
The Ministry will take all proactive measures to ensure that the marine system in the UAE does not allow such violations of the rights of seafarers and crews, he added.
Assistant Undersecretary for the Infrastructure and Transport Sector at the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure Sheikh Nasser Majid al-Qasimi, said: “We are confident that this initiative will have a global impact as thousands of seafarers who come to the UAE will benefit from it.”
“The UAE will be the international benchmark for ensuring the welfare of seafarers and their rights. Ships that violate the rights of seafarers will not be able to enter the UAE waters, and therefore will not be part of the regional trade center and the global supply chain and logistics services.”
The initiative includes several achievements made by the Ministry in terms of protecting and supporting seafarers.
They include: issuing the Cabinet’s resolution regarding marine wrecks and violating ships; announcing the regulations that guarantee the protection of seafarers’ rights, and signing an agreement with the International Transport Workers’ Federation to enhance cooperation to support seafarers.
These efforts run in parallel with providing material and moral support to seafarers in the UAE and providing them with free treatment and COVID-19 vaccines. The initiative to allow crew replacement, in which the UAE has achieved a global precedence, alleviates the suffering of sailors.
More than 214,000 seafarers confined to their ships, were assisted in the replacement process, and returned to their home countries, the ministry said.