Monday saw the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) give the go-ahead for stranded seafarers everywhere to down tools in potentially one of the greatest backlashes shipping has ever experienced from its seagoing staff.
With more than 300,000 sailors awaiting crew change, and many having worked more than a year at sea thanks to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the trade union umbrella has given the green light for crew to stop working.
“You have the right to return home,” the ITF stated in a release, backing up warnings it had made a month ago that if no resolution to the crew change crunch happened by mid-June then world shipping could be plunged into chaos.
“Despite all the support from the shipping industry and the United Nations and their agencies, you continue to be treated as second class citizens,” the release stated, adding that it will no longer be acceptable that seafarers are forced to continue to work.
“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, concluding its statement with the words: “Enough is enough.”
There have already been a number of instances where crews have deviated from their intended course and taken ships to their home countries – more are expected with the union agreement now expiring.
ITF seafarers’ section chair Dave Heindel commented: “Some seafarers have been onboard for more than a year, and over the course of this pandemic many have been prevented by governments from coming ashore even for a walk and alarmingly refused emergency medical care. Frankly, we have seafarers killing themselves at the prospect of this misery continuing without end. They call them floating prisons. This situation is intolerable to the ITF family.”
ITF president Paddy Crumlin said: “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.”
The ITF said that if a seafarer wants off a ship, then the federation, its affiliated unions and the ITF inspectorate will assist them. The ITF said it expects port state authorities in all countries where ships dock to honour their obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention to get these seafarers safely home.
On the prospect of world trade grinding to a halt, 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 to their families. A few small changes by national governments would allow seafarers to get home, and be relieved by a fresh crew, he said.
“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,” Cotton said.
Francesco Gargiulo, CEO of the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC), told Splash yesterday: “We have been reassured that employers that have been trying in good faith will not be targeted however, the unions will no longer be able to support our members in telling seafarers to stay put if their extended contract comes to an end after today.”