After months at sea, deteriorating conditions and a lack of action from world governments, the International Transport Workers' Foundation (ITF) will begin helping seafarers leave their ships and return home.

"Enough is enough," said ITF President and Dockers’ Section chair Paddy Crumlin.

"We have to draw a line in the sand and today is the day that we make it crystal clear to governments, that from June 16, seafarers are going to start enforcing their right to stop working and to return home. No more contract extensions.”

Seafarers have been unable to come off their ships during the Covid-19 pandemic, with authorities leery of allowing crew changes over concerns they could spread the highly-contagious respiratory illness.

The union said this has lead to 200,000 seafarers trapped on board, denied medical care or driven to suicide with no indication as to when they will be able to return home.

It admitted the move would be "highly disruptive" to global trade, but that seafarers have done more than enough, accepting three contract extensions and continuing to move 90% of global trade despite the uncertainty.

"If a seafarer wants off a ship, then the ITF, our affiliated unions and the ITF inspectorate will do everything we can to assist them. We fully expect port state authorities in all countries where ships dock to honour their obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention to get these seafarers safely home," said ITF general secretary Steve Cotton.

"If getting seafarers off these ships causes chaos in supply chains, if ports back up from Singapore to San Francisco, and if this causes ship insurance providers to pull their coverage and global trade to grind to a halt; then that is on the heads of politicians, not the world’s seafarers.

"Seafarers have done our part in this pandemic, and plenty more. Enough is enough."

Taking matters into their own hands

The ITF's appeal comes amid signs that seafarers are beginning to take matters into their own hands.

Rumours spread in Athens last week that the crew of a Greek-managed ship damaged their vessel on purpose, in the hope of forcing authorities' hand, be allowed on land and eventually get home.

Shipmanagement companies are receiving increasingly dramatic appeals by trapped seafarers. "Nerves are on the edge on board, I simply don't know what to tell them anymore," one head of a crew management department told TradeWinds.

Shipowners' most recent appeals sound increasingly dramatic as well. "Today, an invisible humanitarian crisis is unfolding around us," said Dimitris Fafalios, chairman of dry bulk owners' organisation Intercargo, in a video message labeled "urgent" on 12 June.

"Fatigued and stressed" seafarers are "absolutely desperate to return to their homes and families, unable to foresee when their ordeal will end," Fafalios said.

Depressed crews start representing a "severe" safety risk as they navigate ships in and out of ports, Intercargo vice chairman Jay K Pillai said.

The ITF, IMO and International Chamber of Shipping have been lobbying authorities for months to come up with rules to facilitate crew changes.

In early May, the IMO released 12-step guidance covering every leg of a seafarers journey from home to the ship and back, but governments largely ignored the IMO's overtures.

The ITF first threatened a labour action last week, telling the industry it would not sign off on a fourth contract extension.

Shipowners and managers have been able to swap out crews in at least three jurisdictions, with Genco Shipping & Trading changing in Singapore, Euronav at Reunion, a French territory west of Madagascar and Hong Kong releasing regulations.