Today we mark International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD). A day when we mourn for those who have been killed at work - taken from their friends, families and workmates too soon, often due to the unsafe practices that continue to see corners cut and workers sacrificed in far too many industries and workplaces.
In remembering those that we’ve lost to workplace incidents, we renew our commitment to fight for safety in the world of work. We vow to keep fighting to ensure that no more transport workers are killed, injured or suffer trauma due to the negligence of their employers.
In this post, we remember those transport workers killed on the job in the last 12 months. And in the spirit of IWMD, we also show you some of the hope offered by ITF-affiliated unions leading the change needed for a safer world of work.
Two port workers killed on New Zealand waterfront in as many weeks
In the space of the last two weeks, the port communities of Auckland and Lyttleton in New Zealand were shaken by two tragic, but likely preventable, workplace deaths.
Unions say the deaths are the avoidable outcome of growing pressure placed upon Kiwi dockworkers. It is a feeling felt by dockers in other countries too, reports the ITF Dockers' Section, as supply chains experience record container volumes as demand has surged over the course of the pandemic.
In both cases, the New Zealand dockers died while working aboard vessels that were in port. Stevedoring companies push workers to get ships quickly in and out of ports. The situation is leading to fatigue, and many workers are clocking up 60 hours or more of work per week.
But the problem isn’t new. The ITF’s maritime affiliates in New Zealand have been voicing their concerns to industry and government in recent years with growing alarm. They say it’s time for legally-enforceable national stevedoring standards, and an end to ports’ widespread dependence on dangerous levels of overtime for normal operations.
Working together, the port workers through their unions are being heard.
This week the New Zealand Government agreed to the unions’ demands for investigations into the fatalities. On Wednesday 27 April, it tasked the independent Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TIAC) to conduct the probe.
Unions MUNZ and the RMTU say the investigation also gives TIAC the opportunity to ask port companies to review their operations and, critically, the commission will be asking industry and worker representatives if regulatory changes are needed to prevent any more unnecessary deaths in New Zealand ports.
Remembering Canadian tug workers Troy Pearson and Charley Cragg
Canadian tugboat workers Charley Cragg and Captain Troy Pearson were killed on the job last year in the early hours of a winter morning, as their vessel sank while pulling a barge for mining company Rio Tinto.
The sea was rough, with blistering, ice-cold winds and gusts of more than 70 knots per hour. Their employers made the ill-fated decision to send the two men to work that day, in that weather, onboard an undersized tug. The Ingenika was no match for the deadly weather conditions.
Troy and Charley leave behind parents, siblings, a wife, a son.
They also leave behind warning in the wake of their deaths: towage is an industry in crisis.
There’s a race to the bottom going on in the sector. Unhealthy competition is being driven by highly-profitable shipping lines who are using the power gained from their cartel-like alliances and record container prices to put downward pressure on towage rates. Unions say it’s a race that is often being enabled by lax regulation and absent enforcement.
The result? Too much pressure is placed on tugboat workers like Troy and Charley. Corners are being cut. Adequate pay and rest breaks are not being respected. Crew are at breaking point. More lives could yet be lost.
To stop more families from experiencing the loss and anger that happened to her when Troy was killed at work, his widow Judy is standing up for change.
She joined forces with Canada’s tug unions in calling for meaningful action from the regulator there (Transport Canada), tug operators, and shipping clients. She’s telling Troy’s story as part of a new global campaign being led by the ITF and ETF to draw attention to the industry’s urgent issues.Thanks to the efforts of people like Judy and the relentless campaigning of ILWU Canada and SIU Canada, Transport Canada has said it would begin to inspect vessels of all sizes, including smaller tugs like the Ingenika that Troy was on the day he died.
While concerns might remain over the agency’s slow implementation timeline, progress is being made in Canada and elsewhere. And ITF unions are leading it.
Public transport workers mobilise to protect themselves, their colleagues and communities
Public transport workers were a lynchpin of the initial response to the pandemic, helping move nurses, doctors and other key workers to and from the frontlines. Many workers paid the ultimate price for their service. Bus drivers succumbed to viral overload from their heavy exposure to contagious passengers, while some ticket vendors and station staff were spat at by abusive users, infected and died.
In the Philippines, as in many other countries of the global south, the majority of public transport is provided by informal workers. Worldwide, informal workers suffered the brunt of economic retrenchment, with income drying up overnight and virtually no recourse to social security. Some jeepney drivers in the Philippines were forced into begging to feed themselves and their families.
However, workers refused to accept these conditions and mobilised for change. With the support of NCTU, the local ITF-affiliated union, jeepney drivers organised themselves into cooperatives to stabilise services and fares and end the ruinous competition between workers on low incomes. These cooperatives are now winning contracts to operate public transport services across the country - a genuine example of ‘building back better’ from the pandemic.
The Covid experience has not only shown that public transport is an indispensable service for society, but also that public transport workers are capable of seizing control and running services for the common good.
21 fishers die in February sinking of Spanish trawler Villa de Pitanxo
Twenty-one people died on 15 February 2022 when the Spanish fishing trawler, the Villa de Pitanxo, sank off the coast of eastern Canada.
Helicopters combing thousands of miles of icy ocean waters were able to rescue only three of the original 24-person crew. When the vessel set out from Spain, where it was flagged to, onboard were 16 Spanish fishers, five Peruvians and three Ghanaian fishers.
As soon as the tragedy happened, seafarers' unions were working together to support the surviving crew and the families of the fishers who were missing.
ITF helps families get answers
ITF Coordinator for Spain, Luz Bas, told a Spanish news outlet at the time that ITF Spain was coordinating with their colleagues in ITF in Canada to ensure proper investigations of what went wrong, and to make sure the bodies of the deceased crew members were duly repatriated to Spain as soon as possible.
“Faced with a tragedy of this magnitude, families and society needs answers. It is essential to know what happened, why it happened, how it could have been avoided,” she said.
“What were the conditions and organisation of work onboard? Were there sufficient hours and days of rest for the crew? What was the owner’s plan for operations in adverse weather conditions?”
The coordinator said the nature of trawling meant fishing crew were often aboard vessels that were distant from national waters, where laws were less clear and enforcement by authorities often lacking.
“The environment is unpredictable out there, especially when ice and fatigue become factors. But the harsh and hostile weather conditions are only part of the picture for why fisheries has the highest rates of danger and death for workers of any sector.”
Tragedy shows why more fishing vessels need to be flagged responsibly
For Luz and the Spanish inspectorate supporting the families, there was a comfort at least, that the Villa de Pitanxo was a Spanish-flagged vessel.
“All ships flagged to Spain must comply with Spain’s social security requirements,” Luz explains. “Under our rules, vessels must be insured. Unlike other flags, Spain says that shipowners must recognise crews’ status as ‘workers’, she said, ‘for all purposes’.
Spain’s insurance requirement is now having major consequences for the widows and children of the fishers. “This is a lesson about why every flag must require that shipowners be insured.”
‘Don’t forget the sustainability of the humans in this supply chain’
The ITF coordinator said that while the large number of fishers to die in the icy waters off Canada has continued to reverberate through the hometowns of the crew in Spain, too many people in the industry had already forgotten about the ‘Pitanxo’.
“For decades there has been a lot of talk about the sustainability of fish resources, catch quotas and of illegal fishing. But very little has been said about the harsh conditions in which seafarers work and the abuses suffered by too many crew members.”
She said fishers were clearly being forgotten when only 20 national governments had ratified the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188), despite states having had the option to adopt it for 15 years.
In contrast, Luz argues, another ILO agreement, the Maritime Labour Convention (2006), has now been ratified by over a hundred statessince it came into force in 2013, just nine years ago. The MLC is sometimes referred to as ‘the seafarers’ bill of rights’.
“That is great progress for seafarers,” Luz said. “But we have to ask, why has progress stalled for fishers? Are their lives really worth less? No, I do not think so.”
Seafarer killed in Russia-Ukraine crossfire
On the ninth day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Wednesday 2 March 2022, the war became deadly serious for the seafaring community, when a Russian missile became the first to hit a merchant (non-military) vessel, the M/V BANGLAR SAMRIDDHI, and killing Bangladeshi seafarer Hadisur Rahman.
The remainder of the crew survived once they were able to extinguish a fire caused by the missile that had broken out on the bulker. The crew, including the late Mr Rahman, are members of the Bangladesh Merchant Marine Officers' Association (BMMOA), an ITF Seafarers’ Section affiliate.
Rahman, who was the vessel’s third engineer, lost his life in the apparent crossfire between Russian and Ukrainian forces stationed along the once navigable, but now mine-laden, Southern Buh / БогRiver.
The M/V BANGLAR SAMRIDDHI’s crew had been trapped since Russia’s invasion began. Along with them were what an estimated 1,500 other foreign (non-Russian, non-Ukrainian) crew aboard about 120 vessels.
ITF Inspector based in Odessa Natalia Yefrimenko has been helping many of those seafarers secure safe passage home. Seafarers have also received strong support from their various ITF-affiliated home unions and from the only ITF maritime affiliate in the country - the Marine Transport Workers' Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU).
Together, seafarers’ unions, employers, ship managers and home governments, have successfully helped hundreds of the trapped foreign crew to escape the fighting and begin their journeys home. The number of Filipino seafarers trapped in the conflict zone, for example, dropped from around 500 in late March, to under 90 in mid-April.
Meanwhile, the surviving women and men who make up the crew of the BANGLAR SAMRIDDHI were supported by their union a to make their journey to Bangladesh via Moldova and finally, through Romania. In welcoming his members safely home, BMMOA union president Captain Anam Chowdhury expressed gratitude and thanks to ITF for the federation’s “guidance, support and trust during this crisis as well as over the past years”.
The union has vowed to honour the legacy of fallen seafarer Hadisur Rahman.
Aviation workers' knowledge crucial to keep workplaces healthy and passengers safe
Aviation workers were at the frontlines of the early response to the Covid-19 – repatriating citizens and transporting medical equipment and PPE. Air crew faced long periods of quarantining and isolation as government put in place harsh measures for cross border workers to restrict the spread of the virus. Coupled with the uncertainty they faced because of the shutdown of the commercial aviation industry and company decisions to slash jobs to protect cash flow, aviation workers reported devastating impacts to their mental health. As aviation has begun its recovery, the challenges faced by workers around their mental health persist.
At airports, which are the worksite of often hundreds of employers, enterprise- level health and safety protocols compromised airport level health and safety. Workers, employed by different employers, found themselves working in close proximity to each other but under different protocols, offering them only the safety guaranteed by the weakest health and safety protocols at their airport. As a result, many airport workers fell victim to the virus.
Airport workers also often found themselves left out of health and safety decision- making, despite the intimate knowledge they had gained of their workplaces while on the job. Some airports, like Toronto Pearson, recognised the invaluable knowledge held by workers and included them, as well employers, in the airport- wide health and safety committees they convened to respond to the pandemic. The committees, part of the airport’s Healthy Airport commitment, led to Pearson becoming the first Canadian airport to receive ACI’s Healthy Airport accreditation.
The ITF now leads the call for the global adoption of these airport-wide health and safety committees. Last month, the ITF signed an agreement with Argentina’s biggest airport operator, Aeropuertos Argentina 2000, formalising a ‘Healthy Airports’ agreement that aims to progress worker and passenger health and safety.
“It is important that we learn lessons in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Gabriel Mocho Rodriguez, Civil Aviation and Tourism Services Secretary at the ITF. “For the past two years, we have worked collectively with industry to put protections in place so that air services could be safely maintained for both workers and passengers.”
This agreement will be a model for airports internationally. Safe airports are fundamental to the recovery of the aviation industry,” he said. “By showing how we are all continuing in the same direction, we will renew passenger confidence, encouraging a bounce back from the pandemic,” he said.
As the world emerges from lockdowns and the border and travel restrictions that effectively grounded the aviation industry, the health and safety of our members, and that of passengers, is paramount.
On #IWMD22, and amidst the rolling back of mask mandates and other protective measures, we renew our call on industry and governments to include workers in the decision making on the health and safety protocols that protect them and the passengers they transport across the world.