Maritime union Nautilus International has reported that an increasing number of its members in the superyacht sector are asking for guidance after being offered COVID-19 vaccines directly from the yacht’s owner, rather than through national health authorities. In several cases, Nautilus says, crew have been told that they must be vaccinated at the request of the yacht's owner, with the implication that they will lose their employment if they refuse.

Several individuals have also expressed concern to Nautilus about where the vaccines have been sourced, with one member alleging that the crew aboard their yacht were unsure whether the vaccines on offer had been acquired legally, and that their employer had been unwilling or unable to provide proof. This caused tension on board and even prompted resignations.

“Seafarers work and live with colleagues in contained spaces with limited access to specialised medical care and must travel to do their job,” comments Nautilus strategic organiser Rachel Lynch. “This places them at additional risk from COVID-19. To reduce that risk and protect employment, vaccination is an obvious step that the union supports. However, crew are understandably worried about the vaccines they are being offered by yacht owners.” 

“Crew are understandably worried about the vaccines they are being offered by yacht owners...”

While Nautilus cannot share further details about the type of vaccines offered in these reports, it must be noted that many governments are currently not allowing the private importation and sale of vaccines, but media reports indicate that some privately-owned companies have been able to obtain doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and Chinese Convidecia vaccine. However, buying these vaccines privately is understandably controversial due to pending approvals from numerous worldwide health authorities, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the authenticity of privately-sourced vaccines.

If superyacht crew have concerns about any vaccines they are offered, Nautilus recommends initially writing to the captain and/or owner, mentioning the union. “You should ask that [they] put in writing the request to crew regarding the COVID vaccination,” adds Lynch. “Ask where the vaccine has been acquired from and for proof of its authenticity, along with information on medical insurance cover for any illness related to vaccine side-effects.”

Lynch also points out that an employer cannot force a seafarer to get vaccinated. Legal advice received by the union indicates that refusing to have the vaccine would not be a breach of contract and would, therefore, require the member to be paid their notice in accordance with their seafarer employment agreement (SEA). However, because of jurisdictional issues, it is unlikely that the seafarer will have any statutory rights (e.g. claims for unfair dismissal). Most SEAs in the yacht sector contain a clause that allows the owners to terminate employment with contractual notice.

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