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Steve Cotton, ITF Acting General Secretary

Steve Cotton, ITF Acting General Secretary

Pointing to recent successes and big developments on the horizon, Acting International Transport Workers’ Federation General Secretary Steve Cotton said the coming months and years will be ripe with opportunity for the international labor movement.

“The world is changing,” Cotton said during a speech to the Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO executive board meeting near Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 21. “We have a responsibility … to challenge ourselves to deliver a brighter future for working men and women.”

Cotton singled out piracy, the upcoming implementation of the Maritime Labor Convention, 2006 (MLC) and the changing face of the ITF as where the challenges and opportunities lie. Much can be done, he added, if the international labor community continues to work together.

Concerning piracy, Cotton spoke of the recent drop in Somali pirate attacks, while adding the ITF and its allies would continue to fight back where the threat remains.

“Yes, the situation is changing on the Indian Ocean, but there are still many people in the world looking to use piracy as an opportunity to make a fast buck and using seafarers as hostages for that money,” he said. “The battle goes on with piracy and we have to continue responding to the issue.”

Part of that response is being led by the ITF Seafarers Trust, whose trustees are chaired by David Heindel, secretary-treasurer of the MTD-affiliated Seafarers International Union. The trust has contributed more than $1.4 million to help piracy victims and their families.

“It helps the families of seafarers when their loved ones are being held hostage, but it also helps the seafarers when they return home to come to terms with life after being held in captivity,” Cotton said. “There’s a lot of good work being done there. We’ve challenged the industry to put (more) money in the pot to treat them.”

As for the upcoming implementation of the MLC, Cotton said the convention will not only improve mariners’ rights around the world, but could also help those seafarers advance their standard of living. The MLC is set for implementation in August 2013 and is widely considered a “bill of rights” for seafarers, providing minimum work standards for mariners worldwide.

“The Maritime Labor Convention is a convention to protect everybody, particularly those who don’t have union agreements. But we in the ITF don’t feel it’s just legislation,” Cotton said. “We believe it should be used as a mighty weapon to raise standards, irrespective of flag.”

He added that every ITF inspector has been given training on the convention by the International Labor Organization.

“And they’ll be using every part of that legislation to make sure seafarers receive protections similar to those working under collective bargaining agreements,” Cotton said as applause filled the room.

As the international labor climate continues to change, Cotton said the opportunities for organizing and expansion could only grow. He used the story Shwe Aung, an ITF inspector for the SIU, to illustrate the way the international community works together to achieve common goals.

Years ago, after being blacklisted in his home country of Burma for pro-union activities, Aung journeyed first to Venezuela and Brazil and then made his way to Texas to apply for asylum. For Aung, returning to anti-union Burma at the time would have likely resulted in prison.

Thanks to help from the ITF and SIU, Aung was granted asylum and has worked in Texas ever since. But with Burma undergoing political changes that once again allow for union activities, Aung has the opportunity to periodically return home and organize his fellow countrymen.

Situations like that, Cotton said, illustrate how important it is for the international labor community to work together and how things could continue to improve.

“It’s the epitome of what the ITF is all about,” he said.

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