Panama is asking the International Maritime Organization for help in dealing with the crew members stranded off China as the stand-off between Beijing and Canberra continues.
Since last year, China has put a stop on coal imports from Australia and has largely refused to allow bulkers already queuing to discharge to do so — some for nearly a year. Panama said the ban has kept 74 vessels crewed by more than 1,500 seafarers confined in their vessels.
"Our mission in this regard is to find a reasonable and positive solution for the crews of these ships to return home," Noriel Arauz, Panama's minister of maritime affairs and a naval architect, said.
"[The IMO] can help us expose before the competent authorities that due to a commercial disagreement, the human rights and well-being of the crews of these ships are being ignored."
In a statement, Panama said it had requested IMO secretary general Kitack Lim to "mediate and assist" on behalf of seafarers and shipowners in resolving the crisis.
The country's maritime authority said shipowners had made overtures to both Australia and China — but to no avail.
The IMO did not immediately return a request for comment.
China's ban on Australian coal made headlines last autumn, but some ships have been stuck off of China for 200 days or more.
Rumours have circulated that Chinese officials have considered lifting the ban — reportedly put in place amid tensions over Australia's banning of China's Huawei from building the country's 5G network and Australian calls for an investigation into the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan — but that has not come to pass.
Late last year, seafarers have complained their human rights are being violated by being forced to stay aboard the ships and others have likened their ships to a "floating prison".
In February, officials allowed the 95,500-dwt Double Delight (built 2015), 93,700-dwt Flourish Power (built 2012) and 76,500-dwt Hong Hing (built 2010) to discharge in what was called a "goodwill" gesture to the seafarers.
Panama is one of the world's three major flag states, with more than 8,500 vessels registered in the country.
The maritime authority said crew members should not be involved in a commercial dispute, especially if their employment contracts have expired "or they are on board against their will".
It further cited the Maritime Labour Convention, which limits a period of service on board to 11 months consecutively.