Container ship operators, particularly in Europe and Canada, are allegedly flouting regulations and reneging on collective bargaining agreements (CBA) that are aimed at protecting crew from undertaking dangerous lashing work while ships are under way in an effort to cut their costs, according to maritime unions.
According to a number of sources it is reported that these practices are frowned upon not just by the union, but also by companies such as DP World and feeder ship operator Unifeeder, a subsidiary of DP World.
Unifeeder, a major European feeder operator, initially recognised the difficulties and attempted to introduce a charge of €7/box (around US$6) for the extra costs involved for port workers to handle lashing operations, late last year, but other lines were reluctant to add the charge and the initiative was lost.
A spokesman for Unifeeder said that some terminals are now raising the €7/container surcharge on all operations.
Meanwhile, on the St Lawrence River, in the approaches to Montreal Port, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), a global federation of transport unions, said that seafarers often worked in below freezing temperatures while a vessel was under way.
The union added that seafarers on the St Lawrence are required to lash containers while underway often in sub-zero and poorly lit winter conditions. and the ship’s movement could cause crew, handling heavy lashing bars, to overbalance and fall. ITF inspector Peter Lahay says that this unsafe practice is a requirement of the terminal operators in Montreal. Montreal port was contacted for comment, but has not responded.
In addition, the union claims crew working on vessels operating in European waters are being asked to work extended hours, up to 180 hours or more, and fatigue is a major factor in these accidents.
In Europe the ITF says that it receives many letters, some of which Container News has seen, from crew asking for help, where crew are being asked to work up to 180 hours or more in overtime, resulting in tremendous fatigue. While in Canada the union says lines accused by staff of employing them on dangerous lashing work on the St Lawrence include Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, the Swiss-based MSC and the Danish operator Maersk Line.
A crew member on board the Judith Borchard wrote to the ITF this year asking for help. The following is an unedited extract from the letter. “Instead of resting, we do lashing and unlashing even we dont have sleep..we do lashing and unlashing in these following Ports. Dublin Ireland, Liverpool UK, Leixoes Portugal, Castellon Spain,Salerno Italy,Piraeus Greece,Limassol Cyprus,Ashdod Israel Haifa Israel..ITF please save Us, You are Our Only Chance and Only hope.”
Three days later in a second message, the Judith Borchard seafarer outlined the crew’s situation further: “We do not want this Lashing and Unlashing Job and Now its Worst because Stevedores in Piraeus Greece Refuse to do lashing and unlashing, We are doing this Lashing and Unlashing in Almost all of our port of call except Mersin Turkey..I almost fell on this vessels cross bay by putting the cell guide twist locks ..Everything is worst right now, not a Healthy vessel for us and a dangerous ship..We want to refuse.”
These letters are just two from a series of letters written to the union by crew working for Borchard Lines. The crew’s fears were realised with the dramatic collapse of a container stack on the Judith Borchard, when it was at sea on 6 November 2019. Thankfully no-one was killed or injured. All crew that have asked for help from the union have also asked for anonymity as they are in fear of losing their jobs.
Container News contacted Borchard Lines for comment and was directed to Borchard employee Christian Mash, who said that the loss of containers was “subject to ongoing legal issues”. The line said it could not comment further on the matter.
Following this and other accidents on vessels from other operators and the pleas for help from crew, Lahay was prompted to write to Container News angrily declaring, “We get dozens of letters from crew and their family complaining of fatigue and unsafe practices, but they cannot stand up and complain because they know they will be fired. And that is not an idle worry, that is a fact.”
He went on to explain, “These workers will risk their lives under duress to send that pay cheque home to the Philippines, Ukraine or wherever crew are sourced. In Dublin, Ireland, on 14 November 2017 a Filipino able seaman, Dennis Gomez Regana, was killed while lashing containers aboard the Francop. He was sent into an unsafe position and crushed beneath two containers, said the ITF.
Ireland’s Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) reported on 31 December 2018 in its preliminary findings of the Francop accident which occurred a few weeks earlier, on the 14 November.
The MAIB preliminary report describes the accident on the Francop without reaching a conclusion on the loading of containers. The report says that as day was breaking a member of the crew noticed a twistlock was missing from a container in bay 25 on the outer stow on the starboard side of the vessel and a seafarer was on the platform between bays 25 and 27, ready to fit a twistlock.
At 07:15 hours the shore gantry crane attempted to lift four empty containers from bay 25.
“The description of events indicates there were two separate incidents - one the crewmember was crushed between a container from Bay 25 and the one stowed in Bay 27. This was followed by a twistlock breaking, permitting the bottom-most of the 4 containers lifted to fall onto the vessel and landing on the same crewmember. The crew member died from his injuries,” the preliminary report said.
There is an expectation that all shipping lines would adhere to regulations and CBA negotiated and freely signed. However, Nautilus International wrote in January, “Reports from the port of Liverpool in NW England indicate that seafarers are being forced to undertake lashing work on some ships in unsafe conditions despite the introduction of the ITF agreement known as the 'Dockers Clause' on 1 January 2020.”
The Nautilus report went on to say that there are an estimated 15,000 CBA that cover around 400,000 seafarers globally.
UK ITF inspector Tommy Molloy told Nautilus that the union had received a number of letters that questioned the legitimacy” of being required to undertake lashing operations.
“We don’t expect cabin crew to start lugging bags off the plane and start baggage handling,” Molloy reportedly said.
Peel Ports, which operates Liverpool Port in Northwest England had signed an agreement with the ITF agreeing that all new business would be required to use the port’s dockers to handle cargo operations.
“However, the stipulation did not apply to existing customers, some of which require their seafarers to undertake the work. British liner shipping company Borchard Lines is among several companies that fall into that category. None of these companies sign ITF agreements,” said Molloy.
Peel Ports did not respond to Container News’ attempts to contact them, but this may have been due to the current difficulties with Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the situation in Canada is similar. Ravindu Lakmal Pieris Telge left his home and family in Sri Lanka to work on the Maersk Patras. As the vessel approached Montreal, via the St Lawrence Seaway, Telge fell overboard, an apparent victim of an accident at the time when the ship was taking a pilot on board, on 19 May 2019.
A search of the river, which began immediately failed to find Telge and to this day his body has never been found.
It emerged later that Telge had fallen, not while helping a pilot, but as he was trying to unlash containers on board the Maersk vessel, while the vessel was under way and after his navigation watch shift, from midnight to 0:400 hours, giving him just four hours rest after his working day.
Maersk Line responded to questions from Container News saying, “It has always been clear to us this happened during lashing.”
Maersk’s statement said there was confusion in the media probably as result of the accident taking place close to the pilot station and with the pilot boat responding to the search and rescue as one of the first vessels.
The Danish operator did not correct this “confusion” in early information disseminated in the press, putting out a notice, that said a second officer had been lost overboard. Five days after the accident union officials boarded the vessel and discovered that Telge had fallen while lashing cargo.
In addition, Maersk said, “In our global network with hundreds of daily port calls there are very few cases of port calls where we experience lack of available resources from shore and Maersk crews thus perform lashing work,” the statement said.
Container News understands the implication of Maersk’s statement to be that there are not sufficient resources at Montreal Port to meet the lashing needs of the company.
Longshoremen in Montreal point out that with reserves and casual labour there 1,367 dockers available, 1,025 are fully employed, and in their busiest week to date, 8-14 March, there was no shortage of labour. Tuesday of that week was the busiest day and the Maritime Employers Association figures showed a total 831 workers on those shifts.
In a letter to the ITF the dockers wrote, “To conclude the file in Montreal we are enough longshoremen to execute the dockside lashing for exemplary security.”
According to the ITF Telge’s story is not unique, in as much as crew on St Lawrence River are required to lash and unlash containers on their way into and out of Montreal Port.
Peter Lahay, an ITF Canadian co-ordinator told Container News, that negotiations with the International Maritime Employers Council (IMEC) who represent shipowners and managers and sign collective bargaining agreements to cover the ships they own and operate and crew, are in place.
“IMEC agreed to revise the non-seafarer work clause in the CBA to state that lashing among other things is dockers jurisdiction. While the CBA came into force during 2018, this particular clause was covered by a memorandum giving operators about a year and half to make adjustments to comply before, coming into force 1 January 2020 in Europe and Canada,” explained Lahay. He went on to say that ship managers insisted on this delay for Canada and North Europe where they knew they had a problem, then disregarded the contract.
Canadian regulators have allowed lashing to take place in the comparatively sheltered waters inland, when the vessel passes Les Escoumins, some 460km from Montreal. But it is now clear that vessel operators such as the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) are asking unqualified crew (who receive inadequate training) to do lashing duties as far out to sea as the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, nearly 850km from the port of Montreal.
Furthermore, Container News has seen documentary evidence that Maersk crew lashing gangs include cadets, wipers, cooks messmen and navigation officers among others, who have been assigned to perform dangerous tasks in unsafe conditions on board vessels. “These people were signed onboard as seafarers, not as dockers,” said Lahay.
Nevertheless, Maersk and other lines including MSC are continuing to ask crew to handle lashing operations. Container News has seen documents that show the Swiss-based MSC is offering bonuses to crew for lashing duties. The ITF claims that seafarers are made offers that they dare not refuse, preferring to put their lives on the line rather than risk losing their jobs.
Dockers in Montreal will collect C$37 (US$26.32) an hour for lashing containers including twistlocks, often in organised gangs working from one bay to another with gantry cranes only beginning their container lifting work when the lashing gangs are at least five containers away from the gantry operations.
Contrast this work for the comparatively highly paid docker with to an able seaman from India, or the Philippines who make less than US$5.00 an hour and the disparity is stark. But the differences do not end there, crew from the low paid regions of the world are often working to support families.
Even though they are low paid compared to dockers in Canada, when contrasted with pay in their country of origin it would be seen as a significant mark up on local remuneration. And that means whole families can rely on the income of a seafarer.
These disparities are important, not just because they are unfair, but because the crew are often under-represented by unions, or their union does not have the numbers to support them effectively and that can leave crew vulnerable.
Shipping lines themselves can be under pressure as was the case with Unifeeder, the very competitive nature of the business pushes lines to ever greater cost cutting in an attempt to steal a march on competition. Cutting costs in this scenario means, however, putting their employees at substantial risk of death or severe injury, while risks to the marine environment are real with container spills, sometimes caused by inadequate lashing by poorly or untrained staff.
If ever there was a need for a watershed moment it is at this point in time. Covid-19 has revealed to us that we are living, whether we like it or not, in a global village. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the container shipping industry, the very epitome of globalisation.
When contacted Hapag-Lloyd said they could not comment on the issue. While MSC said it could not meet our deadline for commenting, Container News will keep in touch with MSC and will publish any response to the claims made by crew. The port of Montreal did not respond to questions.