In Depth: Interview: Do Seafarers Really Matter?

Seafaring has been described as a vital support mechanism for the global economy by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) ahead of the Day of the Seafarer marked last July.

However, seafarers across the globe still face various challenges when they venture out to sea ranging from poor communication provision, including lack of internet connection, continuous stress, fatigue, long working hours, and isolation.

This year’s theme of the Seafarer Day was: Seafarers Matter. Nevertheless, it appears that, sadly, too often, this is not true.

Namely, we are witnessing reports about crews being abandoned and repatriated months, or even years later, with the help of charity organizations or International Transport Federation (ITF), almost on a daily basis.

Data from the International Labor Convention (ILO) shows there are over 80 crew abandonment cases, with over 50 being disputed, some dating back to even 2004. In addition, around 140 cases have been deemed as “resolved.”

Prompted by the staggering figures, World Maritime News spoke with ITF’s expert on crew abandonment, Katie Higginbottom, to learn more about the key reasons behind such occurrences.

According to Higginbottom, there are various reasons why crews get abandoned. These include owners for whom payment of crew wages is a lower priority than operating a dysfunctional business along with commercial disputes or cash flow problems that result in crews bearing the brunt of the problems. What is more, sometimes flag states who have a commercial relationship with owners don’t want to get involved or lack resources to properly regulate vessels under their flag. Port states with repressed trade union organization and limited legal possibilities have also been listed among factors resulting in crews being left “high and dry.”

At the same time, all of these factors pose some of the main challenges in discovering and resolving such cases.

Bahrain-flagged oil products tanker Bramco abandoned in March 2015

WMN: Any analysis on how many cases are currently pending? What can be concluded from these figures moving ahead, is there a growing trend of crews being abandoned?

Higginbottom: “When it comes to analyzing abandonment stats the first problem is how to interpret the definition of abandonment – the ILO definition talks about failure to repatriate, lack of provisions or unilateral severing of ties by the owner with the vessel, including non-payment of wages of 2 months or more.

In reality it’s rare for the owner to immediately sever ties – usually, they’re making promises that they fail to keep. So we have to determine at what point delayed wages becomes abandonment. Our focus is on supporting seafarers to get a resolution to their problems so reporting the case is not the first priority. Also, the burden of reporting seems to fall rather heavily on ITF – occasionally we see flag or port states reporting, but not often.

I couldn’t say whether the trend is growing or whether the figures reflect greater attention and interest in reporting. Certainly, the existing regulation has yet to eliminate the problem. The term ‘disputed’ in the database means that whilst the crew is no longer on board, their outstanding remuneration has not been fully settled.”

Speaking of the nationalities/countries that are most prone to such practices, Higginbottom said that those are predominantly “people who have the least power and lack better employment options, along with people whose home countries have problems of conflict, politics or unstable economies, and seafarers at the beginning or end of their careers.”

WMN: What have been the worst case scenarios in trying to resolve crew abandonment cases?

Higginbottom: “Long-term cases create huge family stress and psychological problems. Several seafarers have died during abandonment scenarios. The humiliation of facing their communities empty handed – the knowledge that their lives are considered by the owners and authorities to be of little consequence. Cases in countries where we don’t have ITF inspectors or unions, if the seafarers don’t stay in contact, we don’t know the outcome. Cases where the vessel itself has so little value that there is no hope to get back the seafarers’ wages.”

WMN: Any solution in the making/being proposed for avoiding such occurrences on a global scale? What can the industry do to better protect its seafarers?

Higginbottom: “The 2014 amendments to the MLC, 2006 came into force this January. This was a good development in providing seafarers with direct access to a compulsory insurance that could be used in the event of abandonment.

We’re currently monitoring its effectiveness and it’s too soon to give a verdict at this point. That said, there would seem to be some flaws in the mechanism and/or its implementation. There are no quick fixes. It’s a case of changing mindsets and putting enough resources into enforcement. Overcapacity in the industry and oversupply of seafarers doesn’t help people to make rational decisions. There needs to be zero tolerance of substandard shipping on a global basis.”

World Maritime News Staff; Image Courtesy: ITF

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