The International Transport Workers’ Federation is continuing its campaign to call attention to the plight of seafarers forced to continue to work during the coronavirus crisis. The ITF, however, has also had to clarify some of its statements after drawing criticism from other organizations and detracting from its messages about crew welfare.
After strongly denouncing the ITF’s call to action, the London-based charity Human Rights at Sea announced that it would retract its criticism and apologized for the language and tone of its criticism. “Human Rights supports any action that is a genuine attempt to help seafarers wherever they are,” they said in their follow up statement, while they also pointed out that the issue is broader than just seafarers. The charity said its focus and mission includes fishers, business, and human rights as well as migrants and refugees.
Recognizing the ongoing challenges, the ITF and the Joint Negotiating Group, along with the International Chamber of Shipping also issued a new joint statement clarifying the ITF’s earlier action “Enough is Enough” announcement. The ITF said it is not aimed at the JNG and its members trying to highlight that “the campaign is aimed at pushing the various government and authorities to relax crew change restrictions.”
ITF and JNG jointly said that “they recognize that, when seafarers have finished their extended contracts, they are fatigued physically and/or mentally and feel that they are not fit to continue to safely perform their duties at the level required of a professional. The responsible action at this point is not to extend their contract and request repatriation.”
They also responded to some of the reports, saying, “This is not an incitement to go on strike! Their contract has finished and, once a ship is safely in harbor, they have the right not to extend.” The new statement reiterates the position that crew members cannot be compelled to work.
Several countries have taken actions to address the challenges of port and broader closures, lack of visas, and travel restrictions that are making it difficult to facilitate crew changes. Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore, among others, responded to the calls working to create or change rules to aid in crew changes.
The challenge, however, is far from over and in some places the rules are being increased. New Zealand, for example, had said it would lower its restrictions as the country was free of COVID-19. Now with more cases appearing, New Zealand’s Prime Minister said while there would continue to be exceptions to the country’s bans, crew arriving in New Zealand must undergo a 14-day quarantine unless they have been at sea for 28 days prior to arrival. She admitted it was a tightening of the regulations.
Other countries are struggling to manage the influx of returning crew members, often employed on cruise ships. Trinidad and Tobago, for example, quarantined a cruise ship with over 300 returning crew members offshore and after 10 days is preparing to administer a second round of COVID-19 tests before ending the quarantine. In the Philippines where as many as 300,000 overseas workers may be returning, there are calls to use the airport and facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base to become the quarantine center.
The ITF highlighted the broad range of actions it is taking to address the crew welfare issues that it identified. They noted the public support from the United Nations Secretary General and other UN agencies, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), as well as the ITF’s efforts with unions and their memberships. They have also participated in lobbying efforts with the European Commission, pursued diplomatic avenues, and met with flag states.
Noting that the ITF “has not publicly called out or put the blame on companies and employers,” they none the less said, that “the ILO confirmed that force majeure can no longer be used as a blanket excuse for seafarers’ contract extensions, but these must be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
The joint ITF and JNG statement concluded striking a conciliatory tone. They said, “Our main concern is that failing to relieve fatigued, stressed and desperate crew, is only inviting accidents or major incidents which will damage the shipping industry and the reputation of those same seafarers who, throughout the pandemic, have professionally and responsibly carried on and continued working in order to keep the world’s global supply chain moving.”
They renewed the call to work together with the various agencies and nations, on finding solutions to the hardships of seafarers resulting from the current global health crisis.
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