The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has said it will now assist hundreds of thousands of seafarers to exercise their right to stop working, leave ships, and return home. After weeks of calling on governments to facilitate crew changes, the organisation now says ‘enough is enough’.

ITF and its affiliated seafarers’ unions have been asking governments to designate seafarers as “key workers” to exempt them from Covid-19 travel restrictions and facilitate repatriation with only very limited success. According to ITF Seafarers’ Section Chair Dave Heindel around 200,000 seafarers have been caught up in the crew change crisis.

‘We are sending a very strong message to seafarers: you have selflessly extended and extended your contracts to do your part to keep critical supplies flowing around the world during this pandemic,’ says Heindel. ‘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 ships “floating prisons”. This situation is intolerable to the ITF family.’

Possibly disruptive line of action

ITF recognises the new approach could be highly disruptive to global trade. ‘But enough is enough,’ adds ITF President and Dockers’ Section chair Paddy Crumlin. ‘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.’

According to ITF General Secretary Steve Cotton 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 says.

Cotton: ‘If seafarers want off a ship, then the ITF, our affiliated unions and the ITF inspectorate will do everything we can to assist them. We fully expect port state authorities in all countries where ships dock to honour their obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention to get these seafarers safely home. That is their legal obligation.’

He stresses the blame should fall on politicians: ‘If getting seafarers off these ships causes chaos in supply chains, 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.’