11 September 2012

Port Strikes, Freight and Logistics Groups Accused and Tragic Death on the High Seas  

Union Federation Especially Busy During Harder Times

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CHILE – TURKEY – EGYPT –MOROCCO – PANAMA -WORLDWIDE - As economic reality starts to bite across the globe so we hear yet more cases of strained industrial relations within the freight and logistics sector. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) which represents millions of staff employed in the industry has currently a host of cases worldwide demonstrating that when things get tough they can also become confrontational, usually to the detriment of all sides. Sadly the final case mentioned here arose after the tragic death of a young woman aboard a Panamanian tanker which, despite huge global advances in the care of crew, seemingly exposes the casual attitude of some shipping companies in the world toward their staff.

When the thorny subject of cabotage is raised, whether on the roads or waters of any given state, the result is at the least a heated discussion but often far worse. The ITF tells us it is backing the ‘cross-sectoral’ strikes which were apparently taking place in Chilean Ports yesterday. Whilst the union organisation stated that Valparaiso port was ‘at a standstill’ we could get no confirmation of this at the time of writing as the nation reeled under street clashes between crowds of demonstrators thousands strong and police firing tear gas and water cannons as the nation came onto the streets to remember the abuses committed under the late General Pinochet’s regime. The matter of cabotage has arisen after Chile’s government proposed changes in the law to relax maritime regulations allowing flags of convenience (FOC) to potentially undercut the rates of native crewed vessels.

The timing is especially bitter for the ITF having just witnessed the end to its long fought argument to have the Maritime Labour Convention finally ratified as we reported last month. ITF president, Paddy Crumlin pointed out that the same issue, which he called ‘a struggle for the very survival of the national shipping industry’ had caused an identical battle in Australia with results which pleased the workers organisation. Juan Luis Villalon, ITF inspector in Chile, explained:

“By opening cabotage up to foreign flags the Chilean government is risking the gradual and slow extermination of a national seafarer workforce. They appear to be trying to do this slowly, perhaps in order to minimise the immediate and visible loss of jobs for Chilean seafarers. They clearly know that if the law is changed all national ship owners will go FOC. We think that our legislation is already flexible enough, particularly through methods such as waivers, bareboat charters, etc, and the legislation does not need to be changed.”

Mr Villalon’s view was echoed by Hector Azua, president of the Sindicato de Oficiales de Marina Mercante Southship who explained why the strike was called by the union:

“We had several meetings with different secretaries of state informing them that we were against the measure and explained to them the potential damages that something like this might have. Now we realize they don’t care. We met with the secretary of the economy on a central and regional level; an exhaustive analysis was made in order to amend the initial project. We even delivered an alternative project but in the end it was not considered by the government. In southern Chile most of the regular shipping trades are subsidized by the state. Without this, none of the companies would be able to operate as the costs are so high. A change in the law would bring in flags of convenience and cheap labour on these routes.”

Market watchers will conclude that the introduction of cheaper foreign options is necessary to prevent unreasonably high prices but the unions would argue that most flags of convenience succeed by cutting wages and ignoring safety regulations.

Meanwhile the ITF has been extremely busy of late with the cases in Turkey condemning Deutsche Post –DHL after the accusations that workers who join a trade union are summarily dismissed is being actively pursued and that double standards operate with Turkish staff subject to terms which would be unacceptable throughout the EU. Also in Turkey union members have demonstrated against the sacking of 305 airline staff who complained that new legislation withdrew their right to strike.

In Egypt the unions claim that airline staff were subjected to threats of violence under the watching eyes of police due to a lingering dispute over working conditions and in Morocco yesterday the ITF reacted angrily to the refusal of the court in Rabat to grant bail to union leader Said Elhairech, who has been held in jail for over two months on what it describes as trumped up charges. The general secretary of the ITF-affiliated Moroccan Ports Union, part of the UMT (Union des Syndicats UMT des Transports), and chair of the ITF Arab World regional committee, was arrested on 16th June on charges of ‘sabotage and endangering national security’. He is being held in Rabat’s Sale prison and the ITF claim he has been wrongly charged following his very effective work on behalf of ships’ crews stranded by the cessation of operations of the Comarit-Comanav ferry company, which he undertook at the ITF’s request.

Following the actions taken in the Baltic regions last week union rallies are planned for the third East Asia Maritime Action week of 2012 which is running from 10th to 14th September in ports in Japan, Korea, Russia and Taiwan. The unions say they are looking for fair competition worldwide and with the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 coming into force in 2013 the campaign will once again particularly focus on the state of safety-critical equipment and crews’ working terms and conditions. The portside activities will be complemented in Japan with rallies at Kotoku Kaiun and Dowa Line premises. In Korea there will be a focus on the flags of convenience and ports of convenience campaigns at Ulsan port, with education for dockers there and at Incheon port.

One other matter which the ITF is currently pursuing is the terrible tragedy surrounding the death of a 22 year old girl aboard the Panamanian flagged products tanker El Valencia. The ITF is calling for the Panamanian and Mexican authorities to reveal the results of their investigations into the circumstances of her death, and to answer questions as to why her family weren’t informed about it for several days, and why the ship was allowed to proceed for an incredible 17 days with her body onboard. For several days before the accident the vessel had been forced to anchor off Panama for repairs. ITF Panama inspector Luis Fruto was the first person to raise questions about the case. He explains what happened:

“The fatal accident happened on 4th August at. At 04.00 the first officer, along with the cadet and oiler Dayra Wood (a graduate of the International Maritime University of Panama on her first voyage) went on watch. At 04.50, working alone, she made ready to transfer the bilge to the slop tanks in the engine room. At 05.00, she asked another cadet for help to get the emergency pump in place to discharge the bilge because the ship’s pump was faulty. We don’t understand how the PMA (Panama Maritime Authority) authorities gave this ship permission to sail when it had so many defects.

“According to the note issued by the captain, the first officer heard Dayra calling out his name in desperation. The note says that when he saw her caught up in the mechanism, his immediate reaction was to stop the machine using the emergency button. He went to Dayra Wood and found her dead. At 05.35, Captain José Galloway went down to the engine room. At 06.10, he called Javier Garcia at the Ultramar agency in Panama. At 06.20, he called Cesar Centella at the agency in Panama and the latter e-mailed him a death certificate and information on the steps he should take. At 08.45, the body was removed from the scene of the accident.

“All this happened on the 4th August and we do not know why the company waited three days before officially informing the PMA. It was only on the18th August that the PMA then informed the Mexican authorities, even though Dayra’s body was still on the ship, and being kept in its refrigerator.

“The delays were unforgiveable. Having received no reply from either the AMP or the University, I contacted my fellow ITF inspector Enrique Lozano, who is based in Veracruz, Mexico. He was able to tell me that the ship had already left Ciudad del Carmen and was refuelling in Dos Bocas – still with the body onboard. Knowing that Dayra Wood’s family had now been notified of her death, we decided to expose what was going on. It was only then, after it had been reported on the television, that the PMA ordered the detention of the ship, on 20th August in Puerto de Veracruz, Mexico.

“Another two days passed because it was not clear whether it was the AMP or Mexico who had jurisdiction over the ship. Even then Dayra’s body was still not removed from the refrigerator and brought ashore. Nineteen days after the accident, on 23th August. On the 31st August, almost four weeks after her death, she was given a Christian burial.

“The investigation continues. It raises multiple questions. We have reason to believe that the certificates of some of the crew on the ship need examination, following rumours that some of them were bought. The PMA has withdrawn the ship’s certificates and the owners have reportedly tried to change the flag. Why didn’t the PMA notify the Mexican authorities immediately? Why did the Mexican authorities not detain the ship when it put into Ciudad del Carmen or Dos Bocas with a weeks-old body onboard? These are questions that must be answered in order to clarify the circumstances of Dayra Wood’s death.”

Photo: Dayra Wood

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