Repatriation rights of seafarers

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | June 23,2020 - 07:00 AM


Let the seafarers come home!

Seafarers may  exercise the right to stop working and leave ships in order to  return home is the recent strong message of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in relation to the seafarers’ repatriation issues  affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have done your job, performed your duties, and accepted that you were unable to return home in the beginning in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 – but no more. Enough is enough. No more contract extensions,” the ITF said in a statement. “You have selflessly extended and extended your contracts to do your part to keep critical supplies flowing around the world during this pandemic.”

The ITF  will now assist hundreds of thousands of seafarers in enforcing their repatriation rights as a move caused by the insufficient action by governments to designate seafarers as ‘key workers’, exempt them from COVID-19 travel restrictions and facilitate repatriation of seafarers who have been caught up in the crew change crisis.

The ITF fully expects port state authorities in all countries where ships dock to honor their legal obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC2006)  to get the seafarers safely home.

According to the MLC 2006, seafarers have the right to be repatriated at no cost to themselves in the following circumstances (a) if the seafarer’s employment agreement expires while he is abroad; (b) when the employment agreement is terminated by the shipowner; or by the seafarer for justified reasons; and (c) when he is no longer able to carry out his  duties under his  employment agreement, or cannot be expected to carry them out in the circumstances.

Unfortunately, thousands of  seafarers  with expired employment contracts have been forced into continued labor aboard ships due to the COVID-19  pandemic.

Airline and port restrictions have made it difficult for seafarers to get home. In some instances, repatriation is almost impossible because most international air traffic are grounded.

As a general rule, the period of employment shall be for a period mutually agreed upon by the parties but not to exceed 12 months. The  contract shall cease when the seafarer completes his period of contractual service aboard the ship, signs-off and arrives at either airport or seaport of the point of hire.

If a seafarer keeps working longer than the agreed period, any subsequent period is to be considered an extension of the contract. An extension is not usually encouraged due to factors such as fatigue, complacency, and other health reasons.

The ITF  called the  ships  ‘floating prisons’ during the unwanted extensions where many remain stuck on board, unable to go ashore, seek medical attention or return home.

The ITF  have repeatedly  reminded the government  on the consequences of tired, fatigued, depressed crew – to trade and  to the environment.

The ITF noted that there are even seafarers killing themselves “at the prospect of this misery continuing without end.”

A 28-year-old Filipina seafarer of the  cruise ship M/V Harmony of the Seas docked in Barbados took her own life last June 9, 2020  while awaiting repatriation to the Philippines.

Pandemic anxiety can be overwhelming, which if not handled properly, may become emotional, physical and economic catastrophes.

Fear of the unknown and uncertainty of their future is compounded by  the repeated COVID-19 outbreaks on ships, the anxiety of contracting the virus and the company’s inability to provide  them  adequate protection and reliable information.

They also had to deal with financial issues, like the alteration or non-payment of their contractual monetary benefits, especially those with expired employment contracts who have been forced into continued labor aboard ships.

The ITF stressed that COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to lower the wage and working conditions of seafarers.

The Supreme Court ruled that the obligations and liabilities of the  employer do not end upon the expiration of the contracted period as they were duty bound to repatriate the seaman to the point of hire to effectively terminate the contract of employment (Interorient Maritime. v. NLRC, 330 Phil. 493).

International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Kitack Lim earlier called on governments to designate seafarers, regardless of their nationality, as ‘key workers’ providing an essential service. 

“Seafarers are just as worthy as everyone else and should be treated with dignity and respect to ensure that they can continue to provide their vital services to the world.”

Around 100,000  ships carry almost 95 percent of the world trade, transporting cargoes of basic commodities and are operated by close to 1.5 million seafarers, 378,000 of which are Filipinos.

(Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, send email  at [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)

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TAGS: COVID-19, ITF, repatriation, repatriation rights, seafarers

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