PortandTerminal.com, August 19, 2020
Exhausted crew members of South Korean-owned bulk carrier repatriated after downing their tools | Crew had been on board as virtual “slaves” with expired contracts and approaching a year at sea
PANAMA CITY – Seafarers on the South Korean-owned bulk carrier ‘Contamines’ stood up and refused to work further as their ship came into berth in Panama in recent days.
Fed up, lied to and exhausted, the seafarers adopted the action in order get repatriated after being trapped working aboard the Contamines for months beyond their original contracts, with some crew members approaching a year at sea.
While the conflict came to a head earlier this week, its origins began in early July, when the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) was tipped off that at least some of the Contamines crew were working with expired contracts.
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. Often, expired contracts indicate a seafarer does not want to continue on the ship, but they are unable to get off.
During the crew change crisis, thousands of seafarers and even ships’ masters have been contacting the ITF Inspectorate and the federation’s national-level affiliates, saying they want to get off their vessel.
More and more crew are refusing to extend contracts – they just want to go home.
As the crew of the Cotamines was discovering though, getting home wasn’t going to be easy with both the ship’s owner and its manning company, ADK Maritime out of Singapore, blocking their efforts and back-peddling on their commitments.
In the case of the Contamines, the ITF saw an opportunity in early July when the vessel was berthed in Tianjing, China. They noted that in a few weeks, in early August, it was due to be pass through the Panama Canal.
Other seafarers have been able to repatriate via Panama, and so the ITF hoped these to get the Contamines’ tired and fatigued seafarers off there, and home to their families in Ukraine and Russia.
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 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. The crew had been growing increasingly frustrated, and now even some of their salaries had stopped being paid.
According to the ITF, the ship’s 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.
ADK Maritime continues to blame-shift and complain about how their crew members ended up in such a desperate situation.
“We are fighting to keep these seafarers alive. To reunite them with their wives, and husbands and children. It is extraordinary to have a company so brazen in their lies, their deceit, and now their arrogance. Have they no shame?” said Fruto.
But the message from the ITF is that its Inspectors can only help seafarers when crew identify themselves and put up their hands to request repatriation. Many crew remain fearful of retaliation from their employer, who can wield much power and intimidation for a crew still aboard. Seafarers are also worry about what speaking up might do to harm their future employment opportunities in the industry.
It is estimated that over 600,000 seafarers have been affected by the COVID-19 related travel restrictions and the resulting crew change crisis.
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