ITF: U.S. Threat to Blacklist Seafarers Shows "Lack of Understanding"

The Adrian Darya 1, formerly the Grace 1, at anchor off Gibraltar (video still via social media)

Published Aug 29, 2019 2:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a statement Tuesday, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) raised new concerns over the recent warnings from the U.S. State Department to seafarers serving aboard vessels with Iranian oil cargoes. 

The recent message from the State Department to the maritime industry warned that it may use anti-terrorism laws to deny seafarers access to U.S. soil if they work on board a vessel carrying Iranian oil. The statement from the U.S. followed shortly after authorities in Gibraltar captured and released the Iranian tanker Grace 1, allowing her to carry on with her commercial voyage. 

In a brief social media statement August 15, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a succinct description of the policy. "A message to all mariners – if you crew an IRGC or other [Foreign Terrorist Organization]-affiliated ship, you jeopardize future entry to the U.S.," he wrote.  

In a more detailed description of the policy and the rationale behind it, State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said that Grace 1 was assisting the Iranian government's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by transporting oil to Syria. The Trump administration designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in April; in the department's view, this means that helping to transport Iranian government oil may be interpreted as an act of aiding a terrorist group, which may constitute grounds for exclusion from the United States. 

Dave Heindel, ITF seafarers section chair, expressed his frustration at the State Department's position. “As a global union federation, we recognize that geopolitical issues and official sanctions are beyond our purview," he said. "However, it is also beyond the purview of a seafarer to expect him or her to have any influence over the destination of a vessel or its cargo. Seafarers, whether they are ratings or officers, rarely know where the vessel is bound."

Often a vessel is only instructed by its ship management company to sail a course with further directions to be given later, he noted. "If a vessel is directed to an Iranian port, it’s common that the captain will be the only one who knows the destination a day or two before. The crew, especially ratings and lower-ranking officers, will not know and have no possibility to refuse or disembark the vessel during the voyage," Heindel said. “In addition, seafarers usually have no idea who actually owns the vessel on which they are working, much less who owns the cargo."

Instead, Heindel suggested that the administration should direct its attention to the reform of the open flag system, which may in some circumstances allow the beneficial owners of a vessel to obscure their identities. “It is unjust to blankly refuse visas to seafarers who may have been employed on board a vessel considered in breach of sanctions, and it does not hold the right people responsible," he said.