Ukraine should not allow its seafarers special permission to leave the country as “key workers”, according to the Ukrainian Marine Trade Unions Federation (UMTUF).

“Every man who could take a gun in his hand should stay and fight and protect our country,” UMTUF president Maksym Sliusarevskyi told TradeWinds.

He was speaking after news of a plan by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and ship manager V.Group to support evacuation of Ukrainian seafarers’ families to Moldova and Poland.

The ITF recognises not Sliusarevskyi’s UMTUF but rival Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU), headed by chairman Oleg Grygoriuk.

In an announcement of its initiative, the ITF underscored that its offer is not just for federation members.

“Help is available for all Ukrainian seafarers and their families regardless of their employer or union affiliation,” the ITF wrote on its website. “They can stay at the accommodation for a week free of charge, giving them time to assess their situation and for the group to provide onsite support with their journey onwards.”

The ITF Seafarers’ Trust is contributing an initial $200,000 to the effort and V.Group is providing direct in-kind support with the accommodation and transport efforts.

Katie Higginbottom, head of ITF Seafarers’ Trust, underscored that the help with travel and accommodation is for families of seafarers.

“We are not helping seafarers to leave the country,” she wrote. “The benefit to seafarers is for those at sea worried about the wellbeing of their families caught up in the conflict.”

But echoing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s wish for “ammunition, not a ride”, the UMTUF it is not interested in evacuation.

“We know that [ITF general secretary] Stephen Cotton wrote to the Ukrainian government to ask special permission for seafarers to leave the country,” Sliusarevskyi told TradeWinds.

“But our union’s position is that it’s a war and we should all do what we can to win the war, even if it means losing our jobs.”

The effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine may be disastrous in the long term for the jobs of Ukrainian seafarers, as many shipowners are forced to replace them with other nationalities, possibly with permanent effect.

Even so, Sliusarevskyi is for stay and fight rather than leave and work.

“Yes, we understand this can be a huge problem in the future,” he told TradeWinds.

“A lot of Ukrainian seafarers are losing their jobs. Shipowners, to be on the safe side, are now not taking Ukrainian seafarers or Russians.

“The shipowners are forced to do this for now, but after the war is finished it could still be a huge problem for Ukrainian seafarers to get their jobs back. But fighting for our country should come first and fighting for our jobs should be second.”

Sliusarevskyi said opinion on the question is divided in Ukraine, where many citizens travel abroad to work.

He cited a total of about four million Ukrainians per year leaving the country to work. Seafarers are an important but not a dominant part of this. Some 250,000 Ukrainians hold government-issued seafarer documents, but only about 80,000 are using these at a given time, the majority working as cruise ship personnel.

“There are two opinions here and the vast majority feel it is not proper for seafarers to leave Ukraine, because if seafarers can do so, then why not the rest of the four million?” he said.

Sliusarevskyi said he has no records of how many of his members are fighting in Ukraine’s defence, but he believes about half are doing so.

Within Ukraine there is little for his seafarers or dockers to do, except at some river ports that remain active.

Members of both unions are working as emergency skeleton crews for some foreign-owned ships whose seafarers have been evacuated. In some cases, both unions’ members are working together on the same ship, where crews of three, four or five see to fire prevention and other emergency functions.

Sliusarevskyi believes all foreign ships whose crews have left Ukraine are being seen to in this way. “There are no abandoned ships,” he told TradeWinds.

UMTUF, which organises 5,000 Ukrainian seafarers and 6,000 dockers, lost its affiliation with the ITF several years ago in a dispute over accepting below-tariff wages in order to compete with lower-cost nationalities.

Since then, the ITF has recognised only its larger rival MTWTU as a maritime affiliate in Ukraine. A domestic fisheries union is separately organised.

Most large shipowners and ship managers use MTWTU crews as members of the ITF’s negotiating counterparty, the International Maritime Employers' Council.

MTWTU and V.Group officials were not immediately available to respond to enquiries.

The 94-metre, 80-man corvette Vasiliy Bykov (commissioned 2018), destroyed by Ukrainian shore batteries near Odessa on 7 March, was one of the Russian Navy's most modern class of armed patrol boats. Photo: Black Sea Law Co