Human Rights at Sea denounces ITF support for seafarers to stop work

Crew in port in PPE amid COVID-19 restrictions. Credit: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Seafarer charity, Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) condemned the statement issued by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) on 16 June in supporting seafarers to stop work and return home amid COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The ITF statement was released in response to the growing crisis over the lack of crew changes, leaving an estimated 200,000 seafarers around the globe unable to return home or join a vessel. Travel restrictions, imposed by governments during COVID-19, have also led to ship owners taking the decision to extend seafarer contracts of up to 14 months on board a vessel.

HRAS, however, said it is against the measure as the disruption it would cause to global trade would harm those who rely on charity, welfare, and literal lifelines of support the most. These include millions of people in the developing world and refugee camps, in Yemen and Somalia for example, who are dependent on food, medical, and world programme development aid.

The failure to deliver such vital supplies and aid to those most vulnerable could create a humanitarian crisis, according to HRAS. “These actions could well change the balance in accessing critical supplies for the likes of UNICEF and UNHCR development programmes, associated feeding programmes, the distribution of tents, the access to medical support to government and civil society agencies who are invariably resupplied in bulk by sea, and which often determines the fine balance between living and dying,” the charity’s statement said.

David Hammond, CEO HRAS, sees the solution to the current crew change crisis to be two-fold: carry on conversations  with welfare and ship management organisations to continue to expand the crew change systems that are already in place, based on individual state restrictions, and continue to lobby at the UN level for state assurance of “key worker” status and regular access to flights.

“There is, of course, going to still be long delays in crew change, but people on board ships remain being paid and looked after in admitted trying and demanding circumstances. They have jobs, and available remote support from welfare organisations. Stopping the entire system is an extreme militant measure which has serious repercussions wider than just the seafaring community,” said Hammond to SAS.

HRAS also pointed out that seafaring communities and their dependents will also be impacted and add strain on the maritime welfare organisations helping them. Speaking to SAS, Hammond explained that by downing tools and allowing the system to flow at whatever changeover rate can be achieved would mean that there will be seafarers without jobs and contracts waiting to get onboard. They would therefore have to use any savings they have at the expense of being able to later support their families. “Bringing the system to a halt to make a political point is short-sighted. It could force people into poverty,” said Hammond.

“The consequential deaths resulting from failures to deliver aid, urgently needed medicines, re-supplies for global frontline healthcare workers, including critical stocks of PPE and medical equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as essential raw materials, food and oil, must see those responsible held to account,” the Hammond concluded.

Other seafarer charities, however, have expressed an understanding of the current position certain seafarers and their families find themselves in the crisis, and why the ITF would issue such a bold call to action.

“An unacceptable number of seafarers have been trapped at sea for months. The actions of the ITF are born out of frustration and inability to get seafarers home due to administrative hurdles across the world. Substantial action has failed to progress repatriation and crew changes. I understand the concerns raised by HRAS, but am empathetic to the need to get seafarers home,” said Catherine Spencer, CEO Seafarers UK, to SAS.

Supporters of the ITF statement, such as Capt Kuba Szymanski secretary general InterManager, told SAS that he thanked HRAS for highlighting such an important aspect that seafarers provide to the world, and how devastating the impact would be should seafarers stop working, stressing the importance of a job that the world relies on. “Seafaring is a responsible job which is safe for non-fatigued people and it should be the responsibility of all of us to ensure that humans delivering medicine, fuel, food are not tired, they are fresh and motivated. This can only be achieved by timely relief schedules,” said Szymanski.

When SAS reached out for comment on the HRAS statement, the ITF said it would not be responding as officials were “Working around the clock on the crew change crisis affecting seafarers, and are busy assisting seafarers”. The ITF said it cared about what seafarers are going through right now and “not the opinions of organisations like [Human Rights at Sea]”.