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Union Backs Seafarers’ Right to Stop Work Despite Risk to Global Trade

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June 17, 2020

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The International Transport Workers’ Federation said it will now support ship crews’ rights to stop working, even if that comes at the cost of disrupting global trade.

The change in messaging comes after it says governments took insufficient action to facilitate the repatriation of around 200,000 seafarers and exempt them from Covid-19 travel restrictions by designating them “key workers.” The federation and its affiliated unions also called on crews not to agree to contract extensions starting Tuesday.

“Enough is enough,” ITF President Paddy Crumlin said in a statement Monday. “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.”

Read More: As Ports Slowly Open, Ships Look to Replace Exhausted Seafarers

Normally, about 100,000 seafarers change vessels every month during scheduled port stops, when vessels discharge and pick up cargo, and the longest the longest seafarers should be on board a ship is 11 months, according to the Maritime Labor Convention.

That pattern has been disrupted by the pandemic, and the union initially acknowledged that the shipping industry was faced with an unprecedented challenge. In March it supported crews who chose to sign contract extensions while out at sea.

The federation warned that its new approach could be highly disruptive to global trade, and that any resulting “chaos in supply chains” is the fault of government leaders, the union’s General Secretary Stephen Cotton said in a press release.

“If seafarers start getting off ships wherever they can, then ships will fall below safe manning numbers and insurance coverage is going to lapse or be pulled from the world’s cargo vessels,” Cotton said in a subsequent email. “There’s a real risk that much of the world’s cargo shipping fleet could lose its insurance cover.”

Shipping giants echoed the union’s calls for governments to facilitate crew changes.

A spokeswoman for Hapag-Lloyd AG, the world’s fifth-largest container shipper, said the biggest challenge when trying to swap crews are the rules in the countries and at the specific harbors where the ships dock. A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, which controls about one-fifth of the global fleet used to transport goods by sea, said 35% of the 6,600 seafarers it currently has at sea have been stranded for longer than their contractual agreement.

“Our seafarers have been sailing non-stop, enabling societies to withstand the present turmoil, by securing much needed deliveries of food, medicine and other essential products,” Palle Laursen, Maersk’s chief technical officer, said in an emailed statement. “We need authorities to engage with us in a constructive dialogue to facilitate crew changes under the current critical circumstances, ensuring minimal risk to crews and their families as well as the continued flow of supplies around the world.”

Some shippers are taking matters into their own hands and diverting to ports solely to relieve exhausted crews, a practice usually reserved for medial emergencies. Genco Liberty, a capesize vessel owned by New-York based Genco Shipping & Trading Ltd., deviated to Singapore for about 48 hours while en-route from from Brazil to China. Flights were chartered for the incoming crew, from Sri Lanka, and the outgoing crew to India.

As the crisis gained global attention, some key ports have eased restrictions. Last month, Singapore has relaxed the rules for crew changes, and recently started using chartered flights to enact rotations. Hong Kong will also no longer require compulsory quarantine for cargo ship crew.

Governments and port authorities should adhere to their obligations under the Maritime Labor Convention, and in fact, only a few small practical changes are required to help seafarers, said Cotton. “That is their legal obligation.”

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P

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