Port of rotterdam vessels in operation

ITF warns of shipping’s backslide on safety & seafarers’ rights amid COVID-19 impact

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the shipping industry goes beyond the crew change crisis as the industry adapts to a new reality by adopting a more flexible approach to meeting international rules.

Port of rotterdam vessels in operation
Illustration; Image by Navingo

While the make-do strategy is understandable given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) believes this could have grave consequences for workers and the environment.

“Manning levels have been reduced as crew become hard to change and be refreshed; hours of rest are being ignored and replaced with non-paid hours of work and compliance performance; systems crucial for the safe operation of the world’s shipping fleet are being disregarded on a daily basis through superficial remote inspections,” the ITF Maritime Safety Committee said in a new report.

Report co-author and chair of the Maritime Safety Committee, Odd Rune Malterud, says the report shows an unsustainable trend by industry players, including flag states, to deprioritise ship safety out of expedience rather than necessity.

“Some industry players are pushing for exemptions from, or the outright suspension of, important international rules. These rules were introduced to protect seafarers’ safety, lives, and the marine environment over many decades. They are the result of learning from incidents in the past: be it an accident; a drowning; a spill; a grounding; or a death.”

“Take remote inspections – we don’t oppose their use for technical inspections when they are safer than the alternative, for example in the use of drone technology which can replace risky manned inspections of the ship’s structures and tanks. But it is completely unacceptable to see countries like Norway allowing remote inspections where crew themselves are expected to independently and objectively report on their own safety and security on top of their watch keeping duties.”

“Given the growing power imbalance caused by the crew change crisis, crew are under enormous pressure to appease their employers, who are often a seafarer’s only way off a ship after months at sea. What is more – most employers will expect crew to pick up these remote inspection tasks on top of their already overburdened workload, often when a seafarer is supposed to be keeping watch for everyone’s safety.”

Malterud said the report was about putting a line in the sand over the industry’s rapid backslide on safety and seafarers’ rights.

“It is our obligation as seafarers’ representatives to raise the warning because what we are witnessing right now causes us extreme worry. We cannot in good conscience be complacent and allow seafarers’ safety and security to be put at risk. The shipping industry is now a ticking timebomb towards an environmental catastrophe.”

“Pandemic or not: the public will not accept more deaths at sea and strewn ships spilling oil over precious coastal wildlife. That is the consequence of allowing this much risk in the industry.”

The stark warnings come as the industry witnesses several incidents, including a major oil spill in the pristine coasts of Mauritius caused by Capesize bulker Wakashio.

Wakashio diverted from its navigation route approaching closer to the coast of the island as the crew was trying to pick up an Internet signal, according to preliminary findings of an investigation into the incident by the Panama Maritime Authority.

Apparently, the crew was trying to pick up a telephone or an Internet signal so they could get in touch with their families. The crew members on board have reportedly kept on board beyond their normal contractual terms due to COVID-19 impact on travel.

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“Governments know what could happen, and that’s why we have seen them refusing and detaining unsafe ships in their own ports. This is despite those same governments endorsing dangerous short cuts for ships to them to operate elsewhere. Well, if a ship is too risky for the harbours of Australia and Norway, it is too risky anywhere,” said Malterud.

As Offshore Energy-Green Marine has reported, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has banned four vessels this year citing serious breaches of the Maritime Labour Convention. The vessels include AC Sesoda, the Unison Jasper, TW Hamburg and Agia Sofia.

ITF Seafarers and Inland Navigation Section Coordinator, Fabrizio Barcellona, said the ITF’s Crew Change Survey for September showed that seafarers recognised rising risk in the industry.

73.3% of seafarers who took the ITF survey said they worried about ‘Being tired and fatigued’, while 60.1% said it was more likely than not that they or their crewmates would be ‘involved in an accident that could harm human life, property or the marine environment due to tiredness or fatigue while on board’.

“Government restrictions on borders, travel and transit have made it difficult to recruit seafarers and some in the industry are responding by dumping more and more work on the tired and fatigued workforce who remain on ships,” he said.

As explained, minimum safe manning levels are not being implemented, however, flag states are not enforcing the rules allowing shipowners to run their ships with the manning numbers well-below what would have been considered safe pre-pandemic.

“Inadequate manning levels spread the same workload across a smaller number of seafarers. The result is over-worked, stressed seafarers onboard who are not physically or mentally well-rested enough to discharge their duties safely,” he pointed out.

Hence, there is a growing risk of marine accidents that cannot be blamed on seafarers, he added.

The ITF and its affiliated unions are calling for flag states and port states to get back to enforcing the rules.

 “If action is not taken, there will loss of human life and irreparable damage to marine ecosystems,” said Barcellona.