ITF will support seafarers’ rights to stop working and return home

Crew member on vessel. Credit: Hasenpusch Dietmar

Seafarer Union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), announced on 16 June it will support seafarers who exercise their right to stop working at the end of their contract, leave ships, and return home.

The ITF told SAS that should crew members decide to stop working at the end of their contract and become passengers, it will highlight how close to the minimum safe manning numbers ships currently operate under. Should a vessel fail to meet the minimum safe manning numbers it would be under threat of having its insurance withdrawn and being detained at port state control.

The decision comes after some governments inaction to designate seafarers as “key workers” and exempt them from COVID-19 travel restrictions. There are an estimated 200,000 seafarers who are currently stuck abroad awaiting repatriation. The issue of crew change has been a prevalent one since the beginning of global COVID-19 lockdowns with travel restrictions imposed by governments. Seafarers have had contracts extended, been overworked, and have had extreme difficulties in accessing medical care due to these restrictions.

This week marks the end of the most recent contract extensions. “Seafarers cannot be extended any further, we need to get them home,” said Capt. Kuba Szymanski, secretary general InterManager, in a video appeal. The video also appeals to governments to allow for crew changes, singling out Singapore, Dubai, and Qatar as places where crew changes needed to be carried out urgently.

Shipping industry bodies have made repeated pleas to governments to assist seafarers and help them carry out their daily work unhindered. “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 Paddy Crumlin president ITF. “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 16 June, seafarers are going to start enforcing their right to stop working and to return home. No more contract extensions.”

Some countries are slowly opening, such as Canada and Hong Kong, where crew change and repatriation is being allowed to take place, with all the necessary COVID-19 protocols in place. The ITF urged governments to look and replicate those models as an easy fix to allow for crew to travel freely unhindered by COVID-19 restrictions, should they have “key worker” status.

The ITF have also offered the help of its affiliated unions and the ITF inspectorate to assist all seafarers who request help. The union also expects the cooperation of the port authorities in honouring obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention to not hinder disembarkation and repatriation.

“We recognise that seafarers have gone above and beyond the call of duty and greatly appreciate their contribution to keeping countries supplied with the food, fuel, goods and raw materials, including vital medical supplies that nations rely upon,” said Guy Platten, secretary general International Chamber of Shipping, to SAS. “The safety of our crew members is paramount, and we must do all we can to ensure safe operations for our seafarers and shore-based staff. I have said this is issue is a ticking time bomb and we ask governments to prioritise this issue”. 

Following the release from the ITF, the issue of crew change was raised by Kitack Lim, secretary general of the International Maritime Organisation, in his address to the virtual Capital Link Forum on 16 June. “I recognize that some countries have acted to designate seafarers as key workers, to facilitate crew changes by implementing crew change protocols developed by industry, which I have endorsed;  to allow for repatriations, to ease travel restrictions involving the issuance of passports and visas, and to give seafarers access to medical care. But others have not done so and we are at a critical point now.

“I implore Governments to do more, today. This cannot wait.  This is now a real safety issue, endangering the safe operation of ships. We cannot expect seafarers to stay at sea forever.  Governments must allow shipping to continue moving by getting seafarers to their homes, and to their ships to work”.