Unions are ramping up the rhetoric in their threats to boycott shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean where the risk of hijack is the highest.
In the latest development the London-based International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has adopted a motion that calls for “a high level strategic planning task force to begin as a matter of urgency the necessary planning to implement the call to refuse to sail in the area”.
The motion, adopted at last week’s meeting of the ITF seafarers’ section in Buenos Aires, notes the situation in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden (jointly referred to as “the area”) was now so serious the ITF’s seafaring affiliates could no longer tolerate it.
It points to the stark statistics of 4,185 seafarers being attacked last year, 1,090 being held hostage for “many months” and, at the time of the meeting, 19 ships and 411 crew being held captive.
Thousands have also been subjected to “gunfire, beatings, confinement and, in some cases torture and murder”.
It adds, “Unless governments, including flag states, redouble their efforts to eradicate the problem of piracy, the ITF seafarer affiliates believe the moment is fast approaching when we can no longer accept the increased risk and unsafe situation for our members to sail in the area”.
The motion was passed by the ITF meeting only after, according to Mark Dickinson of the ITF affiliate, the Anglo-Dutch officers’ union Nautilus International, an all-night session when members were finally persuaded to back it.
Unions – notably those in India – have previously warned they might call on their members refuse to sail in high-risk areas but have so far failed to carry out the threat and the ITF motion, while eliciting sympathetic responses from shipowners, may be viewed with some scepticism.
Simon Bennett of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) tells TradeWinds, “The ICS has a great deal of sympathy with the ITF’s viewpoint and is indicative of the fact the piracy situation is spiralling out of control. Seafarers are increasingly anxious about sailing through the piracy danger areas.
“We hope governments take note of the seriousness of the situation and the potential danger to the flow of world trade if unions implement their threat to boycott the areas.”
Privately, shipowners welcome the hardening of the language used by the unions as it serves to increase the pressure on governments, although they also quietly acknowledge navies are being stretched by both events elsewhere – in the Mediterranean, for example, where ships have been redeployed to take part in operations involving Libya – and financial constraints.
The ITF motion, however, says shipowners must, when highlighting the plight of seafarers, include recognition of their “right to refuse to sail into the area” and to ensure seafarers and their families “receive contractual entitlements when held captive”.
Seafarers in ITF unions – mainly in the Philippines and India but also across eastern Europe – that have seen their members form the bulk of those attacked or taken hostage – have negotiated with shipowners in the International Bargaining Forum (IB) the areas where crews qualify for danger money.
The IBF and other union agreements with shipowners usually state seafarers are allowed to sign off a ship rather than sail through a danger area without prejudicing their present and future employment.
Until recently most seafarers’ attitude was pragmatic, based on their perception of the risk of being hijacked and on the financial rewards. If they did get taken hostage, the worst that could happen was a long, unplanned stay in Somalia and relatively minor hardships.
But despite the continued presence of a number of navies and the use by shipowners of an increasing range of defensive measures – from armed guards to so-called citadels – ships have continued to be hijacked, with the worrying recent development of pirates remaining active during the monsoon season when previously the weather forced them to stay ashore – a sign of either growing desperation or more robust boats.
The industry and piracy experts like the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) have also been alarmed at the increasing brutality inflicted on seafarers held hostage, a trend that began around nine months ago, according to IMB director, Pottengal Mukundan.
Other sources say the rise in brutality is due to the hijackers’ use of hired guards who are paid a relatively low amount and do not get a share of the ransom and so lack the incentive to take care of what are, in effect, valuable assets.