In 2020, the International Transport Workers' Federation in Russia conducted 419 inspections of ships and managed to get USD 1,676,000 paid to seafarers of different nationalities. The numbers are inferior to the results in 2019 when the Russian inspectors conducted 476 inspections of ships and helped the crew members to receive almost USD 2,162,000. The decline can be explained by the adjustments in working process due the coronavirus pandemic: common restrictions and prohibitions made the access to ports almost impossible, and the focus in help has shifted to the logistics due to closed borders and drastic reduction of international air traffic. Despite this, the ITF coordinator in Russia Sergey Fishov is positive: the inspectors demonstrated a great team work.
Coronavirus pandemic followed by crew change crisis caused a lot of troubles for seafarers: more than 400k seafarers who could not complete their contracts in time and come back home were caught right in the middle; the same number of seafarers were kept on the shore without any payments waiting for boarding the ship.
"The most common question from the crew members was how to get discharged from the ship after the contract expiration, which is not surprising as some of them had been sailing for 15-20 months," says the ITF inspector in Vladivostok Pyotr Osichanskiy. "During the year we received about 30 requests of assistance to organize the changing and managed to help to 33 seafarers.
A great help came from Far East ports Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Slavyanka and Zarubino as they were the only ports in the Asia-Pacific region opened for repatriation of both Russian and foreign seafarers. Though there was one condition – there had to be good reason to discharge a seafarer. For instance, in the midst of the pandemic in April, the Vladivostok branch of the ITF helped the chief engineer from the Singapore ship St. Katharinen (IMO No. 968915) sailing to Slavyanka to come back to Ukraine.
"We got an e-mail from a Ukrainian seafarer: he didn't feel well and had been sailing for as long as nine months already, but his company considered his repatriation impossible," recalls Pyotr Osichanskiy. "We advised him to report to the captain on a necessity to visit to a doctor followed by the repatriation".
When the ship arrived in the port of Slavyanka in the beginning of May, the chief engineer was examined and diagnosed with hypertension. The hospitalization was not required, but they decided anyway to discharge him in the next port of call, Nakhodka. Having been quarantined and having received a negative Covid test, he flew to Moscow in the middle of May and then to Sumi.
More Abandoned Crews
The question about coming back home was also common in the South of Russia, but typical issues of crew members addressed to the ITF were always there too.
"Starting from April 2020, we received dozens of calls and messages from the seafarers stuck on board their ships all over the world," says the ITF inspector in Novorossiysk Olga Ananyina. "The morning would begin with the monitoring of situation in various ports to advise crew members where they could have an opportunity to get discharged. Sometimes, the seafarers' cases were literally passed from hands to hands: each request along with contact details would be immediately sent to the inspector of the closest port of call, but if the repatriation was not possible there, the request would be handed further. Once we became aware about a port with repatriation available, we started corresponding to the company, the port authorities and agents. But the problems with wages debt were always there too, moreover, crisis made it more frequent that shipowners simply abandoned their ships and crews and stopped contact them anymore."
This was the case of a Turkish company Voda Dånizcilik which abandoned the Indian seafarers on board the ship Vega 1 (IMO No. 8516756, Panama flag) in Tuapse without wages or provision. Moreover, the crew's misadventures began before the pandemic, on 31 January 2020, when the ship was arrested during the inspection due to debts to seafarers amounting to USD 50k and some technical non-compliances found on board. The company preferred to keep aloof from the problems.
"We managed to stabilize the situation: some money to purchase food and water for the crew were provided by the Seafarers' Union of Russia in March by ITF by the end of April", says Olga Ananyina. The issue of debt repayment was also partially settled: P&I Club Hanseatic took the responsibility instead of the ship owner. But the payment made in amount of USD 42k covered only four months in accordance with the insurance certificate, which is required by the Maritime Labor Convention".
The Indian Embassy also took part in helping out their citizens: they planned to evacuate the seafarers on a flight through Moscow on 28 May, but it went off the tracks because of Russian authorities' requirement to spend 14 days in quarantine upon arriving in Moscow. They flew to Delhi not before 3 July and thanked Olga Ananyina for the help.
Solutions for Logistics Problems
By mid-summer some companies started to clearly misuse the situation in the world by forcing the crew members to work much longer than the maximum contract periods stipulated in the MLC. Meanwhile, some countries started to ease the movement restrictions and others lifted entry and exit restrictions at all provided that the Covid test was negative. But many seafarers kept sailing for 12, 14 and even 18 months. Once the International Transport Workers' Federation made it clear that the seafarers are not obliged to enter into new contracts and have the right to come back home, ports authorities started arresting ships whose crew members had expired labor contracts. Then shipowner started looking for means to change the crews.
"Berge Taranaki under Liberia flag was close to get sanctioned by the port state control in Kaliningrad because of exceeded seafarers' contract periods," says the ITF inspector in Kaliningrad Vadim Mamontov. By that time, they were overdue for two months already. When the question of arresting the ship arose, the problem was solved rather quickly: the ship owner sent a guarantee letter to the PSC assuring to change all the crew members in Estonia. Without this event, the seafarers would have continued sailing to Latin America."
Vadim Mamontov says it's not the first time when port authorities help to the ITF inspectors and seafarers.
"We didn't visit the ships a lot", he explains. "Mostly because of companies' restrictions for their fleet: captains were not allowed to let on board those who have nothing to do with the ship and cargo operations. We understand that such precautions are completely reasonable during the pandemic, that's why we appealed to port authorities to handle this or that situation. And they never refused to help".
To Help ITF and Seafarers
Indeed, the PSC did come to the rescue to the ITF. There are cases of cooperation not only in Kaliningrad but in other port cities as well. For example, the PSC of Ust-Luga helped to settle the issues of repatriation and wage payments on m/v Ever Grand (IMO 9613989, Panama flag).
In the end of October, the Seafarers' Union of Russia received an appeal from a brotherly union, the Independent Federation of Myanmar Seafarers (IFOMS). They explained that there were two crew members of Ever Grand who stayed on board for as long as 14 months but still could not get a repatriation plan from the employer. The ITF inspection of Saint-Petersburg visited the ship to find that the information was true. Some other violations of seafarers' right were revealed too: their wages were half the size provided in their contracts. The difference was around USD 25k. The PSC of Ust-Luga was involved into settling the issue. The PSC's own check confirmed that the MLC requirement to have crew member's consecutive service period no longer than 11 months under a 12-month contract and the right to wages were breached on board of Ever Grand.
The shipowner was informed that the ship's departure from the port was to be delayed until the revealed problems are settled. The shipowner gave an immediate response to this notification: they found the money to repay the debt and quickly scheduled the change in the next port of call in Denmark. Only these conditions made the PSC to allow for the departure of Ever Grand from Ust-Luga.
Solidarity in Action
It's well known that in most cases a labor conflict on board is a multinational problem. ITF inspectors from different countries can be together involved in the settlement, as it happened with the crew of m/v Captain Nagdaliyev.
Since May 2020, a ship of once successful company Palmali has been under arrest in Beirut for debts to a bunkering company. The shipowner abandoned the crew in a foreign country and refrained from any communication with the seafarers, the ITF and the Seafarers' Union of Russia. Two Russians (the second mate from Omsk and the cook from Taganrog) and ten Azerbaijanians stayed on board in abeyance and uncertainty. Mohamed Arrachedi, the ITF network coordinator for the Arab countries and Iran, delivered food and drinking water for the crew, while Olga Ananyina, the ITF inspector in Novorossiysk, along with the international department of the Seafarers' Union of Russia kept fighting for the rights of the seafarers in Russia. Four seafarers could return home with a 4-months wage, as required by the MLC, not before negotiations between the union and the insurance company were successfully completed.
Upon their return, the Russians sent a letter to the Seafarers' Union of Russia with their gratitude to the union, the ITF and, in particular, to the inspectors Mohamed Arrachedi and Olga Ananyina: "Everyday consultations, search and payment for a lawyer for our crew, as well as material support in the form of payments and supplies of food, fresh water and fuel – that's far from a complete list of all the assistance they kept providing us for the five months. Words are not enough to convey everything that would like to express! Thanks to such people, abandoned seafarer can hope for help and support all over the world!"
The ITF coordinator in Russia Sergey Fishov repeatedly stresses that the efficient ITF work is the merit of each inspector:
"We carry out our work not only in close cooperation with each other, but also in engagement with the state port control and national maritime trade unions. This allows for better results in assisting crew members. And even though the problems of seafarers are far from having been solved yet, we keep working on it. Our goals remain the same: to make the world where each and every employee on the fleet may get the money they earned and has the right to complete the contract and come back home timely."