Thursday, August 22, 2013

Shipping Union Blasts RoRo Ferry Sinking after Collision with Container Cargo Vessel

Ship 'Would not be allowed to operate' says Nautilus as New Employment Standards for Crews Come into Force This Week
Shipping News Feature

UK – PHILIPPINES – WORLDWIDE – Yet another tragic accident with a likely death toll of over 100 struck the Philippines last Friday with the sinking of the RoRo ferry, St. Thomas Aquinas, a forty year old ship which would never have been permitted to sail under such conditions in many countries around the world. Now the disaster, which occurred after a collision with a freighter carrying a cargo of shipping containers, has prompted UK based Nautilus, the union which represents maritime professionals afloat and ashore, to comment on the needless waste of life.

The ferry, struck outside the harbour at Cebu by the merchant vessel Sulpicio Express 7, sank rapidly and the tragedy is the latest in a grim list which includes such disasters as the horrific loss of the Dona Paz in 1987, the world’s worst ever peacetime maritime disaster costing over 4,000 lives, and the union points out the lower standards often employed in terms of condition, safety and crewing, by vessels operating in developing countries, with Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson, commenting:

“This ferry would not be allowed to operate in northern Europe, and it is scandalous that the world seems ready to tolerate second-class rules for different regions. This tragic accident and the accompanying loss of life are an all-too familiar story, and it is time for the double standards to be brought to an end.

“All ferries that do not meet the International Maritime Organisation’s Safety of Life at Sea convention 1990 and Stockholm standards, which were adopted in response to the Herald of Free Enterprise and Estonia disasters, should be withdrawn as a first step, and then all newbuild vessels should be constructed to reduce the risk of capsize. Domestic shipping and domestic passenger shipping has long been the poor cousin of international regulatory action, how many more tragic accidents must occur before the international maritime community takes action?”

The conditions of the vessels employed in countries such as the Philippines deserves such attention, the St. Thomas Aquinas was being operated by a Chinese government owned group, 2Go (formerly 2Go Travel) which has been acquiring such assets in the region and is now the largest single provider of ferry services to the islands. The ships tend to be older vessels, retired from routes elsewhere, often from countries where sea conditions are not as variable as amongst the tropical archipelago’s. 2Go has been issuing press statements with latest news bulletins regarding the situation.

Meanwhile divers are starting in the early hours to continue to search the cabins aboard the thirty metre deep wreck for any remaining bodies, some of which may never be recovered, to avoid the storms which spring up later in the day. At last count 71 were confirmed dead with 49 still missing, with little hope that any could be found alive and the weather has been so bad that the investigation team from the Marine Board of Enquiry could not fly in to begin work as all flights from Manila were cancelled.

Nautilus has also reinforced the point that it’s not only the standards of ferries which varies widely across the world. With the inception of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), known as the Seafarers’ Bill of Rights, coming into force for the first thirty registered signatories this week, the union says it hopes a turning point with regard to decent conditions for all seafarers has been reached. Mark Dickinson again:

“The convention should help to combat the worst excesses of exploitation and abuse in the shipping industry, by establishing a decency threshold below which no ship owner can operate. Nautilus was deeply involved in the decade-long process of negotiating the MLC and we believe the outcome not only offers new hope to the world’s seafarers, but also provides a template for dealing with some of the complex challenges thrown up by the process of globalisation.

“However, the key to its effectiveness will lie in the way in which it is put into practice and policed around the world. In the UK, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency has already faced huge cuts to staffing which have threatened its ability to undertake inspections. The Union is calling on the Government to reverse this decline so that the UK can lead the way in enforcing the standards enshrined in the MLC.”

On August 20, 2013, all commercially operated ships of 500 gross tonnage or over that fly the flag of any of the 30 countries that brought the MLC, 2006 into force will, if they operate on international voyages, be required to carry, among other things, two specific documents: the Maritime Labour Certificate (MLC) and the Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance (DMLC).

These documents will provide prima facie evidence that the ships are in compliance with the requirements of the Convention, including areas such as minimum age, seafarers’ employment agreements, hours of work or rest, payment of wages, onboard medical care, the use of licensed private recruitment and placement services, accommodation, and food and catering and health and safety protection and accident prevention.

Photo: Life rafts bob around the bows of the stricken merchantman.