Panama-flagged ships under scrutiny as seafarers told to stay onboard longer

Panama-flagged ships under scrutiny as seafarers told to stay onboard longer
June 25 is the Day of the Seafarer

Seafarers union Nautilus International has called for Panama-flagged ships to be targeted for inspection by Port State Control and detained for breaching the Maritime Labour Convention when entering their country in response to its ‘inhumane’ extension of seafarer contracts.

In June, the Panama Ship Registry issued a notice stating that seafarers’ contracts can be extended by a further three months and up to 17 months where crew change is not possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The union has warned that fatigued crews working for months after they were supposed to return home pose a threat to shipping safety and protection of the environment.

Travel restrictions have left hundreds of thousands of seafarers stranded at sea, unsure when they will be able to return home. Many are fatigued and weary because their time at sea has been extended for months beyond the maximum stipulated in international conventions.

Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson said: “’PSC should immediately target all Panamanian ships and detain for breaches of the MLC! This is utterly shameful and inhumane.”

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) stated: “If this situation is not corrected by [the Panama Maritime Authority and the Panama Ministry of Health] the risk of a major maritime accident due to exhaustion and mental health from seafarer grows by the minute, and with it the fate of the global supply chains.”

Last week, the ITF mobilised its global inspectorate to assist any seafarers who refuse further contract extensions.

Paddy Crumlin, ITF president and dockers’ section chair, said: “Enough is enough. From June 16, seafarers are going to start enforcing their right to stop working and to return home.”

June 15 was the final deadline set by ITF for safe crew changes to be implemented according to protocols agreed by the industry and endorsed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labour Organization (ILO).

Under the ‘no more favourable treatment’ provisions of MLC, article V, Paragraph 7, ships must not be placed at a disadvantage because their country has ratified the Convention.

That means ships of all countries (irrespective of ratification) will be subject to inspection in any country that has ratified the Convention, and to possible detention if they do not meet its minimum standards, noted a statement from Nautilus.

Panama is the largest flag state in the world with about 225m gross tonnes registered and 9,367 vessels flying its flag at the end of 2019. Of this total, 2,060 belong to Japanese shipowners, while China comes second with 573 vessels registered in Panama.

The calls for action come as the IMO recognises the ‘Day of the Seafarer’ on June 25 to pay tribute to the “unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

In a webinar, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim stated: “Seafarers’ work is physically and mentally demanding, lonely and remote. This year we are in the unprecedented situation of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“Medicines, food, fuels and personal protective equipment (PPE) are all delivered by seafarers even as COVID-19 has gripped the world. But the crisis has led to difficult working conditions for seafarers including uncertainties and difficulties about crew changeover and repatriation.”

He continued: “This year the Day of the Seafarer campaign calls on member states to recognise seafarers as key workers and to provide them with support, assistance and travel options during the pandemic.”