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Red Sea Crisis

Seafarers can refuse to sail through Red Sea, but careful planning needed

Photo: ITF Stephen Cotton, Secretary General of the ITF
Stephen Cotton, ITF
Seafarers covered by International Bargaining Forum (IBF) agreements can refuse to sail through the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, but it takes a high level of pre-planning according to ITF head Stephen Cotton.

With the continued, and worsening threat to shipping while transiting the region from Houthi rebels in Yemen, the IBF Warlike Operations Area Committee (WOAC) has agreed to expand the High Risk Area to include the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters.

Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), speaking to Seatrade Maritime News in Singapore on Friday, explained, “We reached an agreement under the International Bargaining Forum that it isn't a war zone, but actually it has all the benefits as if it was a war zone, including, you don't have to go. You can sign off.”

IBF agreements cover over 250,000 seafarers working on over 10,000 vessels and are agreed between the ITF and the Joint Negotiating Group representing employers.

He said the attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which started three months ago, had created a massive sense of unrest among seafarers who wanted to know what their rights are including if you could get of the vessel.

“If they want to get off, can they get off? And the answer is yes. But it takes a high level of pre-planning,” Cotton said. For example, he said the last port of call before the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea could be Singapore thousands of miles away.

Under the IBF agreement if seafarers’ refuse to sail into the area companies have to pay for repatriation and compensation equal to two months basic wage. Compensation does not apply if the seafarer is transferred to another vessel belonging or related to the same owner/manager, on the same rank and wages and all other terms.

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While seafarers can refuse to sail through the high risk area many companies, particularly in the container liner sector, have decided to divert their vessels via the Cape of Good Hope.

“But we also have to recognise a lot of the companies that we talked to, and we have agreements with, made what we believe is the right decision to go around the Cape,” Cotton said. This however exacerbates challenges with the supply chain, timelines for delivery, and seafarers being on board ship for longer periods.

At the same time he noted there are some companies that have business in the region and as such cannot choose not to go sail there.

The ITF also has concerns around vessels calling at Israeli ports given the conflict in Gaza putting seafarers at risk, however, these ports have not been declared a high risk area. “But we haven't been able to get further along in that discussion, and to me that is a little bit disappointing,” he said