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‘Panama is denying seafarers their basic workers’ rights’

Panama’s decision to allow seafarer tours of duty to be extended to up to 17 months verges on forced labour, writes the leader of maritime union Nautilus International

‘Some seafarers have already been on board for 15 months. This is a kick in the teeth to them and frankly inhumane,’ says the leader of the Nautilus International maritime union

PANAMA Ship Registry, the world's largest ship register, has signalled its intention to allow seafarers ‘subject to authorisation’ to remain on board for up to 17 months ‘due to the outbreak of Covid-19’.

One can safely assume that this authorisation will follow swiftly. Such is the nature of the ship registration business, for that is what it is. It is run for commercial gain rather than the fulfilment of the states’ obligations that derive from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

You can say what you like about Panama’s efforts to repatriate crew from Panama. That is of course welcome, but I’d say it smacks of them trying to look like they are doing something. It is clearly not a viable solution for the many thousands of seafarers on the 9,000 or so ships on the Panamanian register.

If Panama can state with such authority in its Merchant Marine Notice (03/2020) that seafarers at the end this latest extension “shall be repatriated” then why not enforce that now?

Some seafarers have already been on board for 15 months. This is a kick in the teeth to them and frankly inhumane. It pulls the rug from under everyone working to get crew changes done. It lets those countries who are dragging their feet off the hook. How soon do we think it will be before other flag states follow suit?

Crew contract extensions were agreed in good faith by employers represented by the Joint Negotiating Group and the International Transport Workers’ Federation in March and April in response to the force majeure that the coronavirus pandemic arguably represented.

But now, with the International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization having endorsed the joint industry protocols for safe crew changes, and with travel restrictions starting to ease, the conditions for force majeure no longer exist.

Crew changes can and must happen. Instead of providing the port states and major repatriation hubs with a 'get out of jail free' card, Panama should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the seafarers and demanding an end to the crew change crisis.

Make no mistake, fatigued crews working for months after they were supposed to return home pose a serious threat to shipping safety and protection of the marine environment.

This is why the trade unions have called for their members to exercise their professional judgement in the face of such threats. Enough is enough, as the ITF succinctly put it.

The situation is beyond serious, there have been several reported suicides and violent attacks on board with seafarers' mental health deteriorating due to the stress of the crew change paralysis.

According to a group of UN Special Rapporteurs, depriving already vulnerable workers of choices in a situation of increased risks could already indicate the presence of forced labour.

This is a humanitarian crisis that must be responded to by all governments at the highest levels. Panama’s response is shocking but entirely predictable in the cut-throat world of flags of convenience, where shipowners are customers and seafarers mere commodities.

There are now around 300,000 seafarers waiting for crew changes to be enabled: 200,000 stuck on board awaiting disembarkation and 100,000 awaiting embarkation. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. If countries can open their doors again to tourism, they can surely get seafarers safely home to their loved ones. 

Panama appears to be recklessly flouting the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. Its ships should therefore be targeted by port state control, inspected for deficiencies under the MLC, and detained if they do not meet international minimum standards including those relating to Seafarers' Employment Agreements.

As a flag of convenience, and the largest ship register in the world, Panama through its actions and inabilities has shown how the abuse of the ship registration system undermines the effective governance and structure of the industry.

Panama's impotence in the face of its obligations under Unclos has been brutally exposed by the pandemic.

I’ve said before, and it bears repeating now, the line between the denial of workers’ rights and forced labour is a thin one. Panama has just made crossing that line an inevitability. 

Mark Dickinson is general secretary of the seafarers union Nautilus International

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