The repatriation of seven Myanmar crew members from a Korean-owned vessel via the United Kingdom shows that crew change is still possible during the crew change crisis, but it requires the determination of the seafarers’ employers, says Liverpool-based ITF Inspector Tommy Molloy.
The crew of the MV Hyundai Tacoma reached out to the ITF to request assistance with repatriation following completion of their contracts of employment. Faced with difficulty in getting the crew back to their native Myanmar, employer HMM Ocean Services wanted the crew to extend their contracts.
Molloy explains “The original call for help went to my colleague Shwe Tun Aung, ITF Inspector in Houston, America. The vessel was due to call in to Southampton and seven crew members wanted to go no further on the Hyundai Tacoma.”
In addition to working with the ship’s owner and management company, securing repatriation for seafarers often involves contacting government agencies in the port state (where the ship is docking) and in the flag state (where the ship is registered).
Molloy emailed the flag state registry of the Marshall Islands where the Hyundai Tacoma is registered, followed by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Authority (MCA).
In addition, he contacted Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in London, to flag the plight of the seafarers.
He explained to the government authorities and to HMM Ocean Services themselves that the crew needed to leave the vessel while it docked in Southampton.
“Without contracts, or extensions to contracts, they would be on board illegally. And to be on board like that, not covered by a contract of employment, it is debatable whether a seafarer is covered by insurance. And it’s questionable whether the vessel is in compliance with its safe manning requirements.”
“Despite the genuine difficulties with organising crew change that many in the industry are facing, the company realised they had little choice but to work hard to sign the crew off the vessel and do their best to get them home,” Molloy explained.
The crew were replaced on 30 August in Southampton. But that was far from the end of the matter.
Molloy went on, “The Embassy advised that whilst there were no commercial flights into Myanmar, there were ‘relief flights’ with limited seat availability. The earliest flight they could get the seven crew members onto was not until 21 September.”
“It took a lot of communication between the various parties to finally get the seats confirmed. I was able to call contacts in UK Border Force – with whom I have been able to develop an excellent working relationship – and the crew members were given clearance to remain in the UK until they could board their flight.”
Molloy said the company have put the crew up at a hotel in Southampton until the flight date. While the delay is less than desirable, Molloy said the seafarer community in the southern English port was looking after the Myanmar seven.
“I contacted the Stella Maris in Southampton and they are taking great care of the seafarers, keeping them occupied every day with trips out, ensuring they are able to keep in regular contact with their families and so on,” he said.
“Unfortunately, for many operators the first and only option they consider is to insist crew sign extensions. In some cases, extending could be terrible for their own mental health and physical wellbeing. Every crew member has the right to refuse extensions and insist on their right to be repatriated at their employers’ expense – no one can force you to work in 2020.”
Molloy said in his view “more crew need to force the issue by refusing to extend.”
“That is how the seafarers of the Hyundai Tacoma are now getting some much-deserved rest and looking forward to seeing their families again, rather than continuing to work in an exhausted and frustrated state with no end in sight,” said Molloy.
“This case shows that despite the very real difficulties that many companies are facing, repatriations can be arranged where there is a will.”
Molloy has warned other companies in recent months to take crew change opportunities when calling into UK ports.
“For me, it’s a very simple matter. Where a seafarer’s contract has expired and where they don’t sign extensions: they are entitled to be repatriated. It’s then the company’s problem – not the seafarer, who has done their part already.”