ITF: COVID-19 is no excuse to cut seafarers’ wages

At a time when seafarers are keeping the world moving, COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to lower the wage and working conditions of seafarers, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said. 

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Seafarers are vital employees because they keep the global supply chains moving. Seafarers, including those on ferries, transport around 90 per cent of the world’s goods, including necessary medical supplies, equipment, products and passengers.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, seafarers continue to work to ensure vital goods and passengers are transported, selflessly and in spite of the risks of contracting COVID-19. Despite the vital role that seafarers play, some companies are seeking to use the pandemic to undermine national standards in the industry, including replacing existing crews with seafarers on international terms and conditions that are substantially lower than national conditions, according to ITF.

“The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse for shipowners, managers or crewing agencies to dismiss their obligation to protect local jobs, local conditions or health, safety and economic standards in an industry for any work – especially for key workers including seafarers,” ITF stressed.

“Regardless of the nationality of a seafarer, they deserve the national terms and conditions applicable in national trade.”

In the United Kingdom, multiple companies, including Condor Ferries, Stena Line and P&O Ferries, have laid off seafarers, and asked them to choose between taking unpaid leave or being furloughed, ITF said. This is putting a serious economic strain on the seafarers and their livelihoods. Further, companies are using the pandemic to undermine long-existing collective bargaining agreements, the union remarked.

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In Canada, BC Ferries cast aside their collective agreement to lay-off workers, operating their routes with less crew. BC Ferries later partly reversed this decision after pressure from the union representing the seafarers, but the company continues to disregard the collective agreement, ITF claims.

“National governments must play a necessary role in ensuring market downturns due to Covid-19 do not turn into unfair redundancies for seafarers or undercut current wages. Now more than ever, critical trade routes that deliver essential supplies should be crewed with national seafarers,” James Given, president of Seafarers International Union of Canada and chair of the ITF Cabotage Taskforce, commented.

“To use this pandemic as an opportunity to further erode conditions on ferry routes is opportunism at its worst.”

Companies who receive government funds have an obligation to ensure jobs for national seafarers since those funds are taxpayers’ money. Further, national governments must place conditions on employers who receive public funds that they must protect the wages of furloughed seafarers, including the preservation of existing and pre-existing terms and conditions of employment, ITF added.

The United Kingdom is one of the countries that introduced a government support package to keep the flow of goods and services running smoothly in and out of the UK, and around the country, throughout the pandemic. The package for essential freight services includes up to £17 million ($21 million) for critical routes between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and up to £10.5 million for lifeline ferry and freight services to the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles.

What is more, ITF said that the battle against COVID-19 will not be won without transport workers, seeking urgent protection for ITF members globally.

On the occasion of International Workers Memorial Day 2020 on 28 April, the global trade union movement called upon governments and occupational health and safety bodies around the world to recognise SARS-CoV-2 as an occupational hazard, and COVID-19 as an occupational decease.

Crew change for key workers at sea

Crew change has also been at the centre of discussion of many organisations — including ITF, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and others — since the coronavirus outbreak started.

Due to the pandemic, many countries have closed their borders and restricted port entry. Consequently, seafarers found themselves being unable to embark and disembark from vessels.

The International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (INTERCARGO) once again drew attention to this issue.

As International Labour Day on 1 May approaches, it is more important than ever to remember the critical role played by seafarers in continuing to transport food, medicines and other essential goods during the COVID-19 pandemic, INTERCARGO said.

“Seafarers must not be forgotten in these extraordinary times. The issue of crew change must be at the top of the industry’s agenda,” Dimitris Fafalios, Chairman of INTERCARGO, said.

“Without efficient crew changes, the supply chain would break down leading to basic product shortages and greater hardships for people around the world,” he added.

“Maritime authorities of port states should join hands with their immigration departments to empathise with crews, our unsung heroes at sea, treat them as key workers as requested by the IMO Secretary General and permit crew change without undue restrictions in their ports to ensure safety at sea and of their territorial waters,” Jay K. Pillai, INTERCARGO’s Vice-Chairman, concluded.