The International Maritime Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has taken the unprecedented step of telling the world’s seafarers to stop working if their employment contracts have expired and they are awaiting repatriation home.
The move from the ITF and its affiliated unions comes after months of calls on governments to designate seafarers as ‘key workers’ and exempt them from COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The inability to conduct regular crew changes has emerged as one the most critical issues facing the global shipping industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Each month, more than 100,000 seafarers are subject to crew change in order to comply with international maritime regulations governing safe working hours and crew welfare. However, in the early months of the pandemic, flag states requested to extend employment contracts and certificates in order to keep trade flowing.
Although some countries have moved to facilitate crew changes, an estimated 200,000 seafarers still remain stuck at sea, working on expired contracts while caught up crisis.
The escalating crisis has largely remained a safety and humanitarian issue, but shipping experts have warned for months that the issue could quickly escalate into a crisis disruptive to global trade.
After working unsuccessfully for 3 months on a solution, the ITF’s stated June 16, 2020 deadline has arrived and starting now it will begin working to assist hundreds of thousands of seafarers to exercise their right to stop working, leave ships, and return home.
“We have urged them on the consequences of tired, fatigued, depressed crew – to trade, to the environment. We have worked with industry and the international community to offer solutions,” said ITF President and Dockers’ Section chair Paddy Crumlin. “But enough is enough. We have to draw a line in the sand and today is the day that we make it crystal clear to governments, that from June 16, seafarers are going to start enforcing their right to stop working and to return home. No more contract extensions.” Crumlin added.
ITF General Secretary Steve Cotton said all that governments need to do is make practical exceptions to coronavirus restrictions, and allow these key workers to transit through their territories and return home.
“If a seafarers wants off a ship, then the ITF, our affiliated unions and the ITF inspectorate will do everything we can to assist them. We fully expect port state authorities in all countries where ships dock to honour their obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention to get these seafarers safely home. That is their legal obligation,” said Cotton.
The International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 sets out that seafarers have the right to repatriation at the shipowner’s expense after serving on a ship for 12 months, or upon request when the employment contract expires. In order for a new contract to be issued, both the seafarer and the company must agree on the terms, giving the seafarer the right to refuse the extension. Seafarers also have the right to be repatriated at no cost to themselves under certain circumstances.
If a seafarer rightfully refuses to work, this could create minimum safe manning issues and the ship will be unable to sail.
“If getting seafarers off these ships causes chaos in supply chains, if ports back up from Singapore to San Francisco, and if this causes ship insurance providers to pull their coverage and global trade to grind to a halt; then that is on the heads of politicians, not the world’s seafarers,” added Cotton. “Seafarers have done our part in this pandemic, and plenty more. Enough is enough.”