Stranded seafarers could stop work, disrupting world trade

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A cargo ship approaches the port of Piraeus as other ships are anchored, near Athens, Greece, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. During the new coronavirus pandemic, about 150,000 seafarers are stranded at sea in need of crew changes, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Roughly another 150,000 are stuck on shore, waiting to get back to work. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – Merchant ship crew members stranded at sea for months due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions could now start refusing to further extend their contracts and stop working, potentially disrupting global trade, the International Transport Workers’ Federation said late Monday.

The ITF, a global federation of transport workers’ unions, said in a statement it would “now assist hundreds of thousands of seafarers to exercise their right to stop working, leave ships, and return home.”

With more than 80% of global trade by volume transported by sea, the world’s more than 2 million merchant seafarers play a vital role in keeping countries supplied with everything from raw materials and fuel to food and consumer goods.

But lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed by countries across the world to curb the spread of the new coronavirus are preventing crew members who have reached the end of their contracts from leaving the ships and returning home. Many have been on board, without the possibility of setting foot on land even briefly, for several months beyond their original contracts.

The ITF, along with the International Chamber of Shipping and shipping companies, have been pressing governments for months to designate seafarers as essential workers, exempting them from travel restrictions and allowing for crew changeovers. They have warned that fatigued crews working for months after they were supposed to return home pose a threat to shipping safety, the environment and trade.

The ITF’s secretary general, Steve Cotton, said the federation and its affiliated unions would “do everything we can” to help crews return home.

“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 in the ITF statement.

While some countries, mainly in Europe, have been allowing crew changes to take place, continuing travel restrictions are still making it impossible for many seafarers to leave their ships.

“Enough is enough. 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,” ITF President and Dockers’ Section chair Paddy Crumlin said. “No more contract extensions.”

Guy Platten, the International Chamber of Shipping secretary general, said that although there was an increase in the number of crew changes being carried out in several locations, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada, “the sheer scale of crew required to be changed here and now is enormous – 200,000 on board ships at sea, to be replaced by 200,000 ashore.”

Platten said merchant ship crews had “gone above and beyond the call of duty” in order to keep countries supplied with goods, including vital medical supplies.

“This issue is a ticking time bomb and we ask governments to prioritize this issue,” Platten said.