Owners face backlash as crew abandonment cases soar

What should happen to shipowners who choose to ditch their seafarers? Jason Jiang investigates.

As the economic downturn’s impact on global shipping becomes increasingly severe, more shipping companies are getting into financial difficulties and more vessels and crews are being abandoned deliberately by owners.

“Our primary concern when ships are abandoned is for the welfare of the seafarers and for their families, who will be distressed and concerned about their futures. Our chaplains are on hand in 87 ports around the world to provide financial and emotional support for crews and their families where it is needed in these situations,” says Stuart Rivers, CEO of UK charity Sailors’ Society.

To deal with these problems, the International Labour Organization (ILO) established the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) in 2006 to protect seafarers’ rights. It was drafted through negotiations among governments, shipowners and unions. As of July, 77 countries that represent 91% of the world gross tonnage of ships have ratified the convention.

“There should be no place for shipowners who deliberately abandon their crew in this day and age,” says Katie Higginbottom from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

According to Higginbottom, from January next year the MLC amendments will come into force, meaning that seafarers will be able to apply directly to P&I clubs or other insurance policies for funds that will cover their repatriation, subsistence and up to four months outstanding remuneration. At the same time flag and port states will have to check that appropriate certification exists to ensure this.

“This is the result of decades of lobbying and campaigning by the ITF. We’re confident that there will be no place to hide for irresponsible owners and we will be monitoring the situation very closely,” Higginbottom stresses.

At the moment, the International Chamber of Shipping, representing maritime employers, and the ITF, as the global seafarers union, are working together and with the various seafarer welfare organisations to assist abandoned seafarers and to contact owners, if possible, and the flag administration to ensure that all is being done to resolve any abandonment situation.

Martin Foley, national director at the Apostleship of the Sea charity, reckons that owners who deliberately abandon their ships and the crew onboard should not be able to act with impunity.

“Care must be taken to ensure that any prohibitive action against owners does not compound an already difficult and stressful situation for seafarers, something our chaplains can attest to when they visit seafarers on abandoned ships,” Foley says.

Foley reckons anyone ditching their crews must face serious consequences. Port state control, along with other stakeholders, should ensure that any other ships in a fleet where one or more has been deliberately abandoned are tracked and the needs of seafarers onboard those ships given particular attention when in port.

Arthur Bowring, the managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSOA), is extremely concerned about the current ship abandonment situation.

“Unfortunately owners who abandon their seafarers are likely to have disappeared, so there becomes an ethical and moral responsibility for the flag administration to take care of the seafarers. It is likely that the flag administration will take out legal proceedings against the shipowner, but the success of this depends on whether the shipowner can be found or identified,” Bowring points out.

“Such owners should be prevented from ever owning ships again, but names change, memories are short, and some shipowners seem to have relationships with their flag administration that allows them to continue as if nothing happened,” Bowring continues.

When contacted by Splash regarding the issue, Ken Peters, director of justice and public affairs at the Mission to Seafarers, listed a few suggestions to deal with the ship abandonment situation.

1) There should be within international law a prohibition which bars the shipowner from purchasing back the vessel in a judicial sale. This just encourages rogue shipowners to take this easy path out of their difficulties.

2) Owners who abandon ships, (and that can only be done deliberately as one cannot accidentally abandon or do such a thing), ought to be barred from ship owning.

3) Owed wages and any other financial disadvantage suffered by abandoned seafarers ought to be compensated as the number one priority. Court fees, port dues, and all other creditors should not have priority over seafarers.

4) Sometimes abandoned seafarers are regarded as illegal immigrants for having contravened the term and conditions of their visa and are imprisoned. Such treatment needs redress and compensation for distress should be mandatory.

5) When an abandonment occurs the flag state ought to deregister all other ships of that owner once the seafarers have been repatriated.

6) Registers should bar the defaulting shipowner from their flag

7) Charterers should refuse to fix any ship belonging to the defaulting owner.

8) Flag States and Port state Control should thoroughly inspect other ships of the owners fleet once one of them has been abandoned. This may proactively head off other abandonments.

Splash will continue to report on the plight of abandoned crews around the world and is in discussions to create a high profile campaign to shame owners who have a track record of neglecting their crews.


Jason Jiang

Jason is one of the most prolific writers on the diverse China shipping & logistics industry and his access to the major maritime players with business in China has proved an invaluable source of exclusives. Having been working at Asia Shipping Media since inception, Jason is the chief correspondent of Splash and associate editor of Maritime CEO magazine. Previously he had written for a host of titles including Supply Chain Asia, Cargo Facts and Air Cargo Week.


  1. This would not happen to stranded passengers. The public needs to support seafarers. Vessels have insurance for oil spills so why not insurance for abandoning crews so that the owners cannot neglect the very people that supported their business.

  2. Owners abandoning v/ls has long been a problem. Banning ship owners, who abandon their v/ls and crew, from owing another ship is a great idea but unenforceable but to corporate veil and owners hiding behind companies who ownership is kept secret.
    Insurance would be the easiest way to cover the risks of abandonment. I also like the idea that if an owner abandons a v/l, then the other v/ls in his fleet would be de-registered. I am surprised, that there is nothing to stop an owner buying back a v/l that he has previously abandoned.
    Even in the 21st Century, seafarers still need protection from unscrupulous owners. Plimsoll introduced The Plimsoll Line to protect seafarers and their ships 140 years ago. It seems that some ship owners are still as bad as their predecessors.

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