ITF repatriates fatigued bulker crew after they down their tools in Panama

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has managed to repatriate the fatigued crew members of the South Korean-owned bulk carrier Contamines after the seafarers downed their tools after working on board with expired contracts and approaching a year at sea.

Image courtesy: ITF

The crew members were stuck on the ship as their repatriation was delayed due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The manning company ADK Maritime from Singapore reportedly promised to relieve the crew on several occasions but failed to meet the promise as certain ports started to open up to crew changes.

Under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), a seafarer is entitled to be repatriated to their home country after their original contract expires, or they can choose to extend their contact up until a cumulative maximum length of 11 months on board. Ships are not allowed to operate with crew who have expired contracts.

The ship came into a berth in Panama on July 31 and the ITF recognized this as an opportunity to facilitate the repatriation of Ukrainian and Russian seafarers from there.

“The ITF’s Latin America/Caribbean Network Coordinator, Juan Villalón, reached out to the ship’s crew. During his discussions with them, Villalón learnt that the crew’s contracts had been doubled since they first signed, and many were quickly approaching a year – over the legal maximum,” the ITF said.

“The crew also said that the ship’s South Korean owner had promised on a number of occasions to repatriate them. Every time the promises would come, but the ship kept sailing. Crew had been growing increasingly frustrated, and now even some of their salaries had stopped being paid.”

What ensued was a back-and-forth haggling between the ship’s manning company ADK Maritime from Singapore, the union and the crew as the manning company tried to pressure the seafarers to resume their voyage to Bermuda and repatriate from there.

According to the union, the management company even tried to convince the seafarers with false flight booking documents to stay onboard after they advised they were going to stop working upon arrival in Panama.

Fearing that the promises from the manning and management company would fall through, the seafarers stopped work allowing for the Panamanian Port State Control (PSC) agency to arrest the ship to prevent its scheduled transit of the Panama Canal. 

By 6 August, the PSC had evidence that missing salaries have been paid, but repatriation had still not yet occurred.

The next day four crew members signed off the Contamines as it sat in port, including the chief engineer (who is Panamanian) and the chief mate. The four were sent to a hotel, finally embarking on their voyage home.

“ADK Maritime had cut all salaries since the day the crew stopped working, despite the repatriation delay being almost entirely the fault of the company,” ITF said.

In the following days, the company’s replacement crew arrived. And then, finally, on August 11, the remainder crew who had been on board for almost a year, left the vessel and boarded their own flights home.

The union is disappointed to see the crew change crisis resulting from the COVID-19 travel restrictions being exacerbated by the lack of empathy from manning agencies and other stakeholders who have employed “trickery” and “false promises” to pressure workers to stay onboard.

The ITF said earlier it would back all seafarers in their cry for repatriation, however, in order to do so, the crews have to identify themselves and request repatriation.

Unfortunately, many crew remain fearful of retaliation from their employer, who can wield much power and intimidation for a crew still aboard. Seafarers are also worried about what speaking up might do to harm their future employment opportunities in the industry.

Separately, the ITF said it had managed to repatriate 14 seafarers from Ukraine and Montenegro who were in limbo o board Sparkane vessel in Brazil without pay and facing starvation.

The union said that the seafarers were sent home with $261,009 backpay in hand, after being left on board without pay between 4 and 11 months,

The ship’s operator, Oceans Wide Ltd, and the employer pleaded financial difficulties due to the Covid-19 crisis.

It is estimated that over 600,000 seafarers have been affected by the COVID-19 related travel restrictions and the resulting crew change crisis.