Seafarers in Australia refuse to sail as crew change crisis continues to brew

Crews on two more ships in Australia have refused to keep sailing, demanding repatriation as crew change crisis resulting from the COVID-19 travel restrictions further aggravates.

Image courtesy; ITF

The two ships, Conti Stockholm and Ben Rinnes, join alumina-carting Unison Jasper, which has been held up in Newcastle, NSW since last week, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) says, adding the situation could result in economic carnage from clogged ports for the country.

In the Port of Fremantle, Perth on Thursday, August 6, the container vessel Conti Stockholm was stopped. The Liberian-flagged ship is owned by German company NSB Group.

“The ship is now stranded, going nowhere, as the company awaits a relief crew. The current Romanian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Filipino and Polish crew members refused to sail the ship and demanded repatriation after many months at sea. These seafarers are over contract, and have a right under the Maritime Labour Convention to stop working at completion of their contracts and be returned home at the employers’ expense,” ITF said.

Downing of tools has been the last resort for seafarers, who have patiently waited for months now for the governments to resolve the burning issue of crew change and allow fatigued seafarers to finally go home.

ITF estimates that over 600,000 seafarers have been impacted by the crisis, with 300,000 stranded at sea and another 300,000 pending to sign-on from ashore.

Despite incessant calls from the industry bodies, shipping and crewing companies, the governments were pretty slow to react and designate seafarers key workers in order to unblock their repatriation.

ITF warned in June that inaction from governments will result in workers starting to exercise their rights, stop working, leave ships and return home with assistance from unions.

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The Marshall Islands-flagged Ben Rinnes has been chartered to cart soy product for Cargill. The Greek-owned bulk vessel was stopped in the Victorian port of Geelong after initially four, then five, of the crew told the ITF that they wanted to be repatriated following the expiry of their contracts.

All of the Ben Rinnes crew who have taken a stand to get off have been on board for longer than the legal maximum, except for just one, who will go beyond the 11 month limit within the next 30 days.

One of the crew has been more than 17 months on board. The crew have told the ITF that they signed five-month extensions after their nine month tour, on a promise from the owners to repatriate them. As of yet there are no plans by the company to get them home.

ITF Coordinator for Australia Dean Summers says the federation and its affiliate the Maritime Union of Australia are answering the call of seafarers who are exercising their human right to stop working once their contracts have finished.

“The crews of these two ships have bravely stood up and said that they will not be leaving these ports to do another tour of duty on what amount to floating prisons. They have finished the contracts they signed up for, and now they are getting off. It is not their fault that governments like Australia are so profoundly disinterested in shipping that these governments have not used the last five months of this pandemic to find a way to get international seafarers to and from our ports,” said Summers.

“Let’s be clear: these tired and fatigued seafarers are simply exercising their human rights to get off these ships because governments like Australia refuse to address the issues around the crew change crisis.”

“If Australia is happy to continue benefiting from global trade, from sending exports overseas and receiving essential goods, then Australia can’t treat the seafarers who ship those goods like our slaves.”

Summers added that with international crew change all but blocked for the last five months, more and more crews are likely to decide to drop anchor and get off in Australia.

The consequence for Australia’s mineral and agricultural exports and flow of imports will be significant.