LP 52/2020 ITF Sets Deadline for Seafarers to Exercise Repatriation Rights


The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) announced on June 15 that with its affiliated seafarers’ unions, it will assist hundreds of thousands of seafarers to exercise their rights to stop working, leave ships and return home. With the title of “Enough is enough”, ITF was sending a very strong message. Paddy Crumlin, ITF President and Dockers’ Section chair, urged that “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 message was received with widespread attention as interruption of seafarers’ work would, undoubtedly, be highly disruptive to world trade.

I.   Background on the crew change crisis

The ITF and its affiliates have been concerned with the crew change crisis among the coronavirus pandemic. It also highlighted the critical yet overlooked plight of the seafarers and potential consequences to governments and international organizations.

- ITF agrees to crew contract extensions (19 March 2020)

Global shipping has been hit hard by the coronavirus with disruption to the industry. In an effort to curb the spread of the virus, countries were introducing and imposing travel restrictions, and the impact of which is being felt by seafarers around the world. The ITF has also learned that most flag states have been issuing exemptions from the maximum service periods prescribed within the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). It has then decided that during the period from 17 March 2020 to 16 April 2020, the federation will not challenge extensions of contracts of up to one month even when extensions push the service periods of seafarers past the maximum allowable under relevant ITF approved collective bargaining agreements or the MLC.

- Message to G20 leaders and ministers (7 April 2020)

ITF recognizes that while it is right for governments to focus on the immediate public health emergency presented by COVID-19, it’s merchant ships that move the world’s medical supplies, food, energy and raw materials, plus the manufactured products and components which, due to complex global supply chains, are necessary for national economies to function effectively. By delivering this G20 statement, the ITF was trying to draw the attention of G20 leaders and ministers to the recommended measures to facilitate crew change in ports and ensure access to medical treatment ashore.

- Calling on governments to identify seafarers as key workers (9 April 2020)

Governments must urgently put in place processes and procedures to ensure seafarers are not only defined as key workers, but that that they are exempt from the normal travel restrictions so that crew change can take place. If solutions are not identified soon, then governments will be responsible for jeopardising the supply chain and the safety and wellbeing of the world’s seafarers. Ultimately this will threaten the supply of the essential goods including medicines that their citizens desperately need. 

- Respect seafarers’ right to medical treatment ashore (27 April 2020)

As world leaders scramble to put in place measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and ensure adequate medical treatment is available to their citizens, seafarers are being forgotten despite the crucial role they play in securing delivery of necessary goods including the medical equipment and medication that governments need to combat the effects of the virus. Unfortunately, many seafarers are being denied necessary emergency medical care unrelated to Covid-19 due to national or local restrictions. The ITF has actively intervened with the responsible authorities in Indonesia and Russia to get injured seafarers disembarked despite the efforts made by the port agent, the P&I Club and the embassy. The ITF urgently call on governments to step up and respect seafarers’ right to medical care and treatment. This is not just necessary for world trade to keep moving and essential goods to keep being transported, but it is a fundamental human right that cannot be set aside because of the pandemic.

- A 12-step solution for governments (6 May 2020)

To assist governments to put in place coordinated procedures to facilitate the safe movement of seafarers, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) today issued a 12-step plan to 174 member states, providing them with a 55-page roadmap to free seafarers from their Covid-19 lockdown and allow appropriate exemptions for them to join or leave ships. International seafarers are bearing the burden first-hand as governments continue with a mentality of out of sight, out of mind. The ITF strongly urge governments to use this roadmap to act now before the industry suffers more serious consequences.

- ITF and JNG Joint Statement (14 May 2020)

The ITF (representing 215 seafarers unions and their 1 million members) and the Joint Negotiating Group (JNG) have issued a joint statement reminding governments that ignoring crew health and wellbeing could not only cause fatigue of the crew, but also affect navigation safety and marine environment. Meanwhile, many other seafarers are waiting to be deployed so that they can join their ships and continue to earn a living. JNG and ITF then agreed to not extend the contracts, but to support an implementation period of no longer than 30 days (up until 15 June 2020) so that governments have time to implement the framework of protocols as set out in the IMO Circular Letter. The parties further agreed that companies will consider to financially acknowledge every seafarer whose employment contract has expired, but who has continued to work while providing seafarers waiting to be deployed an advance salary payment. Also, when crew change commences, those seafarers who have been on-board the longest will be prioritised and repatriated first regardless of rank.

- Joint letter to António Guterres (22 May 2020)

In the joint letter to António Guterres, the leaders of ICS, ITUC and ITF urged the Secretary-General to ensure governments of the 193 contracting states were adhering to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and adopting the IMO 12-step set of protocols, as there are over 200,000 seafarers onboard vessels worldwide experiencing fatigue and exhaustion and vulnerable to suicide and self-harm.

- ILO, IMO and ICAO urge governments to act on crew change (28 May 2020)

Leaders of ILO, IMO and ICAO have issued a joint statement calling on governments to facilitate crew change and ensure their access to emergency medical treatment. The ITF also warned that as the 15th of June deadline looming, the restrictions must be removed to avoid any shutdown in global trade.

II.   The ITF message to seafarers

“Seafarers, we know that you, your loved ones, and your friends have had enough.

You have the right to return home. While many countries have slowly started to ease coronavirus pandemic restrictions after 2-3 months of lockdown and are now reopening stores and services and allowing people to meet friends and families, hundreds of thousands of seafarers (you) worldwide remain stuck on board, unable to go ashore, seek medical attention or return home.

Many of you were on board for 6-10 months and now an additional 2-3 months because you had to extend your contracts due to travel restrictions and a lack of flights. Despite all the support from the shipping industry and the United Nations and their agencies, you continue to be treated as second class citizens. You are the same seafarers that governments have hailed as ‘key workers’ vital to the global supply chain and the delivery of essential materials and goods.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and our member unions have forewarned governments and the industry that after today, the 15 June 2020, 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.

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 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. Enough is enough.”

III. The industry standpoint

ITF, as a trade union representing transport labours, can exert tremendous influence on global shipping industry and affect decisions made by international bodies with its network all over the world. This is why after the ITF message is delivered, the UN Secretary-General and many state leaders have expressed their concern over the crew change crisis. Considering that the ITF organizes workers not only in ships, but also in ports, railways, road freight and passenger transport, tourism and civil aviation, if governments continue to turn a blind eye to the significance of seafarers as key workers, ITF is fully capable of putting the global trade grind to a halt by organizing strikes of seafarers, dock workers, truck drivers, pilots and other transport workers.

IV. Global cooperation to assure crew change

According to IMO statistics, about 90% of international trade is made possible through maritime transportation. The UN Secretary-General also recognized the contribution of seafarers in his recent address on the crew change crisis. It was them who take on the critical responsibility of transporting medicine, food and basic supplies during the pandemic. It is therefore important for governments to take immediate actions to step up collaboration in facilitating crew change and seafarers’ access to emergency medical treatment ashore.

It is simply not fair that some countries receive inbound students and foreigners and allow business travel while putting restrictions on key workers who keep on supporting the global economy and help fighting the pandemic as a measure to maintain public health, not to mention the rather safe and maintainable environment onboard ships. For countries recovering from the heavy blow of COVID-19, it’s even more important not to overlook the role of seafarers in world economy as no one could possibly afford the consequence of global trade shutting down.

About the ITF:

The ITF was founded in 1896 by European seafarers’ and dockers’ union leaders who believed in the power of solidarity. It is dedicated to improving conditions for seafarers by addressing problems like excessive working hours, low wages and aggression. Today the ITF is a democratic trade union that supports 670 affiliates from about 150 countries and represents the interests of over 18 million transport workers at world level. The ITF’s headquarter is located in London and it has offices in Amman, Brussels, Nairobi, New Delhi, Ouagadougou, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo. Through union coordination and global campaigning, the ITF is capable of facilitating information-sharing dialogues and fighting union-busting.

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