My position on the cruise ships is based on law – PM
Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves says he cannot be bulldozed on matters relating to the repatriation of cruise workers to St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) as his position is based on law.
His statement comes on the heels of the return of 87* Vincentian sailors to the country on Saturday, May 9 on a vessel from the Carnival Cruise fleet.
Gonsalves, while speaking on Star FM yesterday, May 11 revealed that the ship had indicated that they did not have the necessary tests to check the seafarers for COVID-19 before they disembarked in SVG.
He said he was told that the ship would leave the region and go down to Honduras and drop off the sailors on the trip back.
“I said if that’s the best you can do then that’s the best you can do, but I wasn’t going to be shifted from my position,” Gonsalves stated, while noting that he had in his possession, a legal opinion which informs him on the liabilities of the cruise line as it relates to repatriating sick or potentially sick seafarers.
According to the legal opinion, which was prepared by the Attorney General’s Office, St Vincent and the Grenadines has been a part of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1995.
The eight-page document, which examines the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention of 2006 said that under normal circumstances, where the seafarer is not sick and the employment agreement ends, the seafarer is entitled to be repatriated.
It said that the ship owner is responsible for the costs of that repatriation but the owner’s liability ends at the point when the seafarer arrives at the port where he is to be repatriated.
“As a general rule, ship owners must provide health protection and medical care for workers on board the ship. That medical care expressly includes facilities for diagnosis and treatment. Further, where the sickness arose from the seafarer’s employment, the ship owner must provide material assistance and support with respect to the financial consequences of that sickness,” the document said.
And international law therefore commits ship owners to provide medical care for seafarers who are sick and diagnosis services for those who may be sick, where the sickness arose out of their employment.
The document, which is dated April 2020, reasoned that coronavirus has the asymptomatic feature where persons may be sick and highly contagious but show no evidence of outward sickness.
However that person is still considered sick.
“Where Vincentian nationals contract COVID-19 on board a vessel, therefore, they have contracted it as a result of their employment, and the ship owner is inescapably liable and must provide medical care and lodging,” it said.
It also noted that because no one knows which seafarers are sick or not, ship owners must administer COVID-19 tests.
And if a cruise line owner repatriates a seafarer before doing so, “it could be repatriating sick seafarers and the said seafarers would have to bear the financial cost of their own care. This was expressly stated as an outcome that is illegal under international law”.
Gonsalves, on radio yesterday, stressed that he has always been protecting the rights of seafarers in international law as well as their health and safety and that of their families, communities and the nation.
He said that in addition to the legal opinion, he had the protocols from the Ministry of Health, which put him on sound footing so he had no intention of being unreasonable.
The prime minister said that he would not make any assumptions as to the reasoning behind the actions of the cruise line. He also noted that he had an amicable conversation with the head of the cruise line after the repatriation process concluded on Saturday.
“I knew what was our legal stance, our position in international law. I had that clarified very early and when I speak, even though I speak it briefly, people must listen carefully to the words that I said,” Gonsalves said. “Of course, some other people have other legal opinions and they ain’t drill down into the thing properly including I understand a particular government. But we have drilled into it properly and we have a sound legal opinion and that’s what we follow.”
According to reports, a Miami-based cruise line reneged on a promise to pay for the accommodation of 19 workers who were brought back to Grenada on Saturday. And now, the cost to quarantine those sailors will fall solely with the Grenadian government.
Gonsalves said that he was contacted by a Grenadian official last Saturday to ask how SVG dealt with the matter.
The prime minister also said the official also asked who would pay for sailors in quarantine and isolation. And he confirmed that the cruise line would cover those fees in SVG.
“I repeat what I said earlier. Noise doesn’t shift me; facts, science, law, right reasons against a bedrock of well articulated principles and I’m happy that our first batch of Vincentian seafarers, that they are back and I look forward on the 20th to receiving the 25 from Disney and the arrangements are made them and on the 25th or 26th when Royal comes, which is the biggest number… “ Gonsalves said.
* [The number of sailors who returned was initially given as 91, then 92, but yesterday, the chief medical officer told SEARCHLIGHT that after final checks, it was determined that 87 cruise ship workers had arrived on Saturday.]