22 MAY 2022
The International Transport Workers’ Federation and U.S. Coast Guard teamed up last week to address the latest example of crewmembers stuck aboard their ships and owners extending contracts due to the effects of the pandemic. The ITF is highlighting its success at getting a dozen Chinese crewmembers repatriated thanks to the intervention of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Throughout the pandemic, there have been similar stories such as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority also working with local union representatives to repatriate crewmembers stuck aboard ships for a year or more. The Maritime Labor Convention stipulates that 11 months is the maximum time and requires ship owners or operators to return crews to their home country. The ITF’s collective bargaining agreement set the limit for crewmembers at 10 months maximum.
According to the ITF’s local inspectors in Washington state, the most recent example began in late April when one of the Chinese crewmembers aboard a Taiwanese-owned bulker called the U.S. Coast Guard complaining about the crew’s situation and said “we just want to go home.” The 55,000 dwt bulker Tai Honesty sailing under the flag of Panama has a crew of 19 aboard and at the time of the report was departing Los Angeles. The vessel was bound for the Longwood port in Washington where it was due to load soybeans before a voyage to Indonesia.
The U.S. Coast Guard alerted the ITF to the situation and even before the vessel arrived in Washington, the union’s representatives were contacting the ship’s operator, Taiwan Navigation Company of Taipei demanding that all the crew aboard more than 10 months be sent home when the vessel arrived at the next port. The ITF contends that the ship’s agent replied by sending papers showing that all the crew had voluntarily signed extensions to their contracts.
The Tai Honesty arrived in Longwood on May 6 and the ITF inspectors went aboard to meet with the crew. ITF inspector Jeff Engels told the Seattle Times when they went aboard one of the crew members took him aside and said “We want to go home.” The union says the crew reported that they had been forced to sign the contract extensions and 12 of the 19 people aboard the ship were aboard since March 13, 2021. The ITF inspectors said the ship’s company could have addressed the crew situation as early as February when the vessel first arrived in U.S. waters.
While the union can demand action from the shipping line and its agents, in this case, the U.S. Coast Guard intervened with its legal power. “Crew fatigue and the duration of time that critical crew members have been on board … presented a clearly hazardous condition to the safety of the ship and the waterway,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Clark of the Coast Guard’s 13th District told the Seattle Times. After reviewing the situation, the USCG ordered the ship detained saying the crew situation made the vessel “unseaworthy.”
With the power of the USCG, the ITF achieved its goal of arranging for the 12 crewmembers to leave the ship and replacements were flown to Washington to operate the ship.
Last Saturday, May 14, the dozen crewmembers began their journey flying to Tanzania in Africa where they will have to quarantine before China will permit them to return home. The Tai Honesty departed the following day on its planned trip to Indonesia.