‘We need to stand together’

March 22, 2023
MTWTU humanitarian aid2
MTWTU distributing humanitarian aid to Ukrainian seafarers and their families © MTWTU

On 24th February 2022, Ukraine was invaded by Russian troops, marking the start of devastating conflict which would result in a serious humanitarian crisis – over 7,000 civilians were killed over the next year, millions were left in need of urgent aid, and Europe faced its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU) has been working tirelessly to support the many seafarers and families in Ukraine whose lives were torn apart by the crisis. MTWTU’s Chairman Oleg Grygoriuk spoke to us about the past year and how the Union has helped those in need.

Oleg Grygoriuk, Chairman of MTWTU

What is the mission of the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine (MTWTU), and how does it operate to support seafarer welfare in Ukraine amidst the ongoing conflict with Russia?

When the war started, the first and most important thing we had to do was to pick ourselves up and keep working to defend the interests of our Union members. We also had to set an example of resilience and confidence in the future for our seafarers in different parts of the globe: onboard, in occupied territories, and in heavily attacked cities. The seafarers had to understand that the Union was by their side and that we were still fighting for their rights because that was originally our main function – to defend the rights and interests of the Union members.

We prepared appeals to international organizations and shipowners so that Ukrainian seafarers would not enter Russian ports and to facilitate for them the extension of their contracts. It was our major function in the first days of the war.

What challenges have seafarers faced in Ukraine since the war began?

From the first days of the invasion, we started to receive hundreds of requests for assistance of a very diverse nature: social, financial, and logistical. And we did our best to respond to all the calls. It is clear that the seafarers who had to leave the regions of heavy fighting urgently needed everything. These are basic hygiene tools, clothing, food, toys for children, and a roof over their heads.

There was a situation with a Captain from Mariupol. The seafarer returned from a voyage on 23rd February. His pregnant wife and young daughter were waiting for him at home. On the 24th, the war started. When we had already helped them leave Mariupol, he told us what they had been through. As they ran out of drinking water, they had to drink rainwater. Every day, they lived under shelling and in fear. The seafarer's mother has cancer. With Union's help, they came to Odesa, where we accommodated them in a hotel. The wife received all medical consultations: she gave birth in Odesa. We also found a doctor for her mother. We also provided them with financial assistance. But then they decided to move on to a more peaceful region. I am very happy that the family is safe now.

Families being evacuated abroad due to the conflict in Ukraine © MTWTU

What assistance and support has MTWTU been able to offer to seafarers and their families in Ukraine who have been affected by the conflict?

We made every effort to help everyone who addressed us. For many people from active war zones and occupied regions, the MTWTU has arranged a settlement in the hotel. Others we managed to evacuate to safer areas or take them abroad.

We organized consultations, humanitarian aid, answered all questions, and, of course, delivered financial help. It is our daily work. Many people are now applying for material assistance due to their deplorable financial condition. Seafarers have been left without means of subsistence because since 25th February last year, no man of age from 18 to 60 can travel outside Ukraine.

MTWTU partnered with ISWAN to help seafarers and their families secure financial aid through the SIRF Ukraine Crisis Support Fund. How did this work help those in need?

Basic needs have not disappeared. All those, who cannot leave the country and earn money, continue to encounter significant financial difficulties; and they keep on contacting us and various charities. And we are grateful to ISWAN for supporting our initiative to provide individual financial assistance to seafarers most affected by the war, as well as those who had to leave their homes and relocate. This project is a significant support for them. After the project, we received a huge amount of positive feedback and gratitude. We received phone calls, text messages, social media posts, and even children's drawings. We are very glad that the project helped our people.

A Ukrainian family receiving humanitarian aid in Germany © MTWTU

One year on from the start of the war in Ukraine, how have things changed for Ukrainian seafarers and their families?

For those who continue to stay in Ukraine, day by day, the situation is becoming more and more critical. Mainly it is because people do not have the opportunity to work at sea and apply their highly professional skills and knowledge. Seafarers are forced to search for other jobs. They start to work at the police, malls, service stations – anywhere to provide for their families. These days, everyone is in a really tough situation. For most seafarers, this risk is incomparable to their income.

If a Ukrainian seafarer finds themselves in a difficult situation due to the war in Ukraine or in need of support, what should they do?

It is absolutely clear to me that, to date, we are the only organization that provides decent assistance in various formats to those who need it. Not all Ukrainian seafarers are members of our Union, but we try to help everyone. It is definitely not the time to refuse to help. Ukrainian seafarers count on us and our partners. We are the only Trade Union organization in Ukraine with which ISWAN works exclusively. Such joint projects are a key indicator proving that international partners trust us.

If you could give any words of support to those still facing hardship or challenges, what would you say?

No-one prepared us for such challenges. I believe that most of us could not even imagine that war in the 21st century was even possible. We cannot get ready for it mentally or physically. I want to tell our seafarers not to give up because we are united, and we need to stand together and do everything possible to preserve life and health; and then – continue to work at sea and help rebuild our country.

Ukrainian seafarers and their families receiving humanitarian aid from MTWTU © MTWTU
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