Global trade logjam looms as deadline set by unions for crew change ends

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on June 15, 2020 Published on June 15, 2020

Local administration ignores rise in number of crew of members serving at sea beyod their contract period

Seafarers have been left to decide their next course of action as the deadline set by a global transport workers’ union, to resolve the crew change crisis facing the shipping industry, ended on Monday.

“Enough is enough; you have the right to return home,” the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said in a statement posted on its website, while putting the ball in the seafarers court to choose what to do next.

“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,” ITF said.

“We are clear – if a seafarer wants off a ship, then the ITF, our affiliate unions and the ITF inspectorate will do everything we can to assist them. We know that you need to get off these ships, and we will help you to do so where we can. You have done your job, performed your duties, and accepted that you were unable to return home in the beginning in order to contain the spread of Covid-19 – but no more,” it said.

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 ITF said.

Thousands of seafarers have been working on ships beyond their original contract tenures after the pandemic halted staff swaps on thousands of merchant fleet. This was because many nations had closed their borders as well as stopped international flights into and out of their countries to slow the spread of the virus.

On May 5, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) circulated a framework of protocols to 174 member states, for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

On May 13, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) had set a “final deadline” of June 15 for governments to repatriate crew working beyond their stipulated contract time, by following the IMO guidelines.

“Our work with the ITF has been about buying the governments time to do the right thing whilst providing potential solutions but the last extension that expires today means that the unions will no longer be able to support maritime employers when crews with expired contracts demand to be repatriated,” Francesco Gargiulo, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), at UK-based International Maritime Employers' Council (IMEC) told BusinessLine.

This is not a reflection of how proactive employers have been but rather a realisation that further extensions would only provide governments with an alibi to continue with their “out of sight out of mind” approach, he said.

“We will keep trying however and intend to support our members with advice, mediation and potential solutions as and when trouble arises in the coming weeks and months,” he stated.

IMEC has been working very closely with the ITF and the wider shipping industry on trying to unblock the current situation. “Unfortunately, we have been faced with great resistance from most governments and even the recent intervention from the Secretary General of the United Nations seems to have gone unanswered,” Francesco said.

One of the major factors, that has left many frustrated, is the large number of countries that have paid “lip-service” to the 12-steps crew change protocol (put together by the industry and issued by IMO last month) by introducing their own local standard operating procedures (SOPs). These include certain conditions on crew travel, which are impossible to satisfy except in a very limited number of cases.

As a result, most local administrations tend to only emphasise on the rare successes. They have ignoring the fact that the number of crew members, that have been at sea far longer than their initial contract had allowed, has “skyrocketed”.

It is “unfortunate” that governments have taken a short-sighted approach to the problem and focused on keeping food on the supermarket shelves rather than worrying about the plight of hundreds of thousands of seafarers who have worked behind the scenes to keep those shelves full, Francesco added.

Seafarers are not convinced by ITFs stand.

“The ITF has put the ball in seafarers court. If the crew contacts ITF for getting off, do you believe his company will take him back for the next assignment. Companies will blackmail crew with future prospects if they take extreme action on their own,” said a seafarer currently sailing with multiple extensions of contract.

ITF is supposed to be working for the seafarers and not be pressurised by the industry to not call for a trade logjam to send a strong signal to the governments and the shipping industry. “It seems ITF has come under pressure,” he added.

Published on June 15, 2020
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