ITF defends its decision to endorse seafarers’ rights to down tools

The International Transport Workers’ Federation has defended its to endorse seafarers’ rights to down tools despite a hail of criticism over the last 24 hours as shipping faces up to its greatest ever crewing crisis.

With thousands of crew working beyond their original contracts, the ITF had given a final deadline of this week to resolve the crew change issue or else it would support an unprecedented move to down tools at sea.

“If you have finished your contract, then you have the right to be repatriated. If this is not possible then you would remain on board as a passenger. The consequences could be that the ship is unable to sail if the manning level is inadequate, but that is not the responsibility of the seafarers,” the ITF stated in a release on Monday.

Seafarers have had a mixed reaction to the decision by the federation, with many voicing concern that if they stop work today it could imperil future employment chances.

The most strident opposition to the ITF decision to endorse the action has come from the UK charity Human Rights at Sea.

“Human Rights at Sea strongly denounces what it considers are irresponsible and short-sighted actions by ITF and supporting industry bodies, which if allowed to be followed, could well have life-changing repercussions and long-term ripple effects for the most vulnerable in society,” the charity stated in a release, saying a breakdown in global supply chains risked hitting those in the margins of society the most. The charity lambasted the ITF decision to endorse strikes as a “dangerous vigilante precedent” in the global maritime environment.

Speaking with Splash today, ITF general secretary Steve Cotton responded to seafarer blacklisting concerns by pointing out his organisation has had a system in place for many years with responsible owners to filter crew back to work.

In the 24 hours since the announcement came in, Cotton said the ITF had been inundated with “hundreds” of inquiries by phone, WhatsApp, and social media, with seafarers asking how they might go about stopping work, rather than saying they are stopping immediately. Cotton noted “more tension” from seafarers calling from Australia.

Cotton said the decision to support the stop work movement had been one not taken lightly and the shipping industry had been playing by the rules throughout the pandemic.

“We can’t get our argument heard in the corridors of political power,” a frustrated Cotton told Splash.

The ITF boss went on to hit out at criticism from Human Rights at Sea, saying its comments were “very political” for a charity.

“ITF and its affiliates are working closely with UN bodies to fix this situation,” Cotton said, adding: “Now is not the time for cheap shots about how maritime charities operate.”

The ITF has been working closely with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Labour Organization and the United Nations (UN) to get its message across governments with some belated success in recent days, especially in Europe, Cotton said.

“We now need to get enough planes in the air. Chartering planes is not a solution in itself,” Cotton warned.

With shipping facing up to the prospect of militant union action at sea on a scale not seen before, Kitack Lim, the secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization, discussed the “humanitarian crisis” during an opening address at yesterday’s Capital Link digital forum.

“This is now a real safety issue, endangering the safe operation of ships. We cannot expect seafarers to stay at sea forever,” Lim said, adding: “Governments must allow shipping to continue moving by getting seafarers to their homes, and to their ships to work.”

Speaking with Splash today, Palle Laursen, chief technical officer of fleet management and technology at Europe’s largest shipping firm, A.P. Moller – Maersk, said: “For both safety, regulatory and humanitarian reasons, crew changes cannot be postponed indefinitely.”

Laursen said: “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.”

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. It is too bad we had to be here.But on the other hand not ALL Owners and Managers were really doing something to conduct crew changes.On the contrary,many took advantage of COVID restrictions to prelong indefinetely the crew changes.
    What i will suggest is to offer support to Seafarers arrived with the vessel where Port Authorities do not allow crew changes.See PG countries or US or even Australia.Then down tools till crew changes are allowed.Where crew changes are posible many Shipowners are already conducting crew changes even if service providers are to blame here as ALL,no difference from UK to Nigeria or Singapore,have trippled at least the cost for a crew changes.Shame on them !this is yet another reason that crew changes are difficult .

  2. Intentionally, ITF has guided workers into a dead end tunnel to block them, saving the regulatory framework that outrageously favors unions and employers.

  3. Now that we have seen governments do not listen to ITF or IMO, so this has to be fought in a different way.My suggestion is to involve all the port state control bodies under various MOUs to board vessels and check crew contracts inorder to assess if ship is safe with crew who are mentally tired & not prepared to continue sailing but can not raise their voice for the fear of losing jobs or being targeted at a later stage.
    As PSC inspection is mainly to assess safety of the ship, what can be more unsafe on a ship than having mentally tired crew being forced to sail.
    If PSC inspector finds that crew are really tired and it is unsafe ,then ship must be detained .There after ITF must step in and ensure ship do not sail out till crew is paid & relieved. When trade slows down due arrest of various ships for want of crew change due insufficient flights then I think those blind governments will surely take note & do something.

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