It’s no longer news when the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) interdicts a ship. The union has been running after “ships of shame” for years. But it’s news when the ship in question is chartered by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to carry food for hungry humans. On 18th October 2011, Mombasa-based ITF inspector Betty Makena Mutugi together with Spanish inspector Luz Baz boarded the Panama-flagged Sea Master 1 whilst it was moored in Mombasa, Kenya. The two were aghast at what they saw. We were, too, when we saw the pictures courtesy of the ITF.

Said Ms Baz: “There were virtually no provisions on board, no decent drinking water, no air conditioning. What there was was a very unhealthy environment with cockroaches in the galley, the freezer not working and, in general, very bad living conditions. The crew also claimed that they had not been paid since August.” The ITF inspectors paid the Sea Master 1 a visit after its Russian crew members had contacted their union, the SUR, asking for ITF help.

Stern of the Sea Master 1; dirty water for drinking

Onboard thermometre reading of 35 degrees Celsius; broken down refrigerator

Cockroaches competing with the crew for food

According to Ms Baz, they immediately contacted the ship’s owners, Marine Bulk Carriers Nadkodka of Russia, to ask them to take action and agree to put in place an ITF agreement to ensure minimum standards for the crew. On 21st October came the reply from the Russians’ Houston, Texas-based partners, Reliance Bulk Carriers, which reportedly turned town the proposal. The ITF also lost no time in notifying Mombasa Port State Control and the Panama Maritime Authority. Apparently, one reason it is treating the entire affair as urgent is that the Sea Master 1 is working for the World Food Programme in the Indian Ocean and the dangerous waters off Somalia.

The case of the Sea Master 1 bolsters the ITF’s contention that flags of convenience (FOCs) should be eschewed because they’re often used to evade compliance with international crew and safety standards. But it really goes beyond the FOC issue. It boils down to the question of how humanely seafarers are treated amidst all the talk about seafarers’ rights and the ILO Maritime Labour Convention of 2006. That a UN humanitarian agency has resorted to the use of what the ITF has tagged as a substandard ship is quite ironic, to say the least. ~Barista Uno

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