ITF reports on South America Covid-related repatriations

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Seafarers’ union organisation ITF has reported on two cases involving vessels in South America where crew wages and repatriations have become central to disputes.

According to the ITF, seafarers on the South Korean-owned bulk carrier Contamines stood up and refused to work further after their ship berthed in Panama recently. 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.

An article on the ITF website says the conflict came to a head earlier this week, but its origins began in early July, when the 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.

The ITF article describes communications between the owners and the ITF and what it claims were attempts by the owner to delay repatriations until a later port of call. The role of the Marshall Islands as the ship’s flag-state is also detailed suggesting that the flag was taking the side of the owner in the standoff.

Further events related by the ITF cover the detention of the vessel by the Panamanian authorities after apparently fraudulent documents relating to repatriation flights were produced by the shipowner. By 6 August, past the fabricated Jamaica flight dates, Panama’s PSC authority had evidence that missing salaries had been paid, but repatriation had still not yet occurred.

According to the ITF, 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. Further insulting them on their way out, the company only gave them breakfast – and not their wages. 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. 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 second ITF case involves the Croatian-owned, Panamanian-flagged general cargo vessel Srakane detained by authorities in the Bay of São Sebastião, Brazil, after the crew with ITF assistance attempted to recover more than a quarter of a million dollars in back pay.

The event took place earlier in the year and the crew have since been repatriated and wages paid. The ship’s Ukrainian operator, Oceans Wide and the employer pleaded financial difficulties due to the Covid-19 crisis. However, the ITF points out that while the pandemic has had a large impact on the global seafaring workforce and some shipping routes, most cargo has continued to move. The crew change crisis is affecting seafarers unable to join and leave ships – but it has not yet affected shipping companies or the supply of goods. In any case, the crew of the Srakane had gone unpaid for months before the pandemic hit.

The dispute was resolved in a somewhat unusual manner when a Brazilian business man agreed to charter the vessel to carry a cargo of soya beans to Europe at a freight sufficient to pay the crew’s back wages and allow for their repatriation. The crew were replaced by Brazilian seafarers for the voyage to Europe.


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