Carolyn Graham, a PhD student from the Seafarers’ International Research Centre at Cardiff University, wades into our campaign, highlighting the difficulties of getting crews home.
Shipping has always been reactive with less attention paid to the worker. A reader of Splash commenting on one of the articles on abandonment on Tuesday suggested that the IMO (and I would add the ITF and ILO) call on member states to establish a fund similar to the fund convention for oil pollution damages to ensure seafarers are paid their wages and repatriated in a timely manner when a ship runs into financial trouble. But I supposed as on land, businesses are bailed out and employees bear the burden.
This suggestion is ripe for the picking and would go a long way in reducing the distress seafarers and their families face in such situations. It would send a clear message that the international maritime community cares and is willing to put their money where their mouth is. The system is already in place and could be easily established. Again the existence of such a scheme for environmental damage and the lack thereof for seafarers sends a clear message as to how seafarers are – or are not – regarded. As a past IMO secretary general said: “If it were not for seafarers half the world would freeze and the other half would starve.” We owe the men and women who brave the seas that much. How can we say up to 90% of world trade is by sea and flag and port states that benefit cannot see it fit to put a miniscule percentage of this money into a fund to assist seafarers when abandoned? Asking owners to have insurance is no assurance. Certificates can be faked. In the example mentioned below, the owner was doing business, business was bad and the seafarers bore the consequences.
On three separate occasions I have had to deal with seafarers being abandoned. I was a junior administrator in a maritime administration struggling to give a voice to seafarers’ concern. On two of those occasions these were mixed nationalities, including Jamaicans in foreign waters and on one occasion these were mixed nationalities in Jamaican waters. Needless to say I could not help the Jamaicans in foreign waters, only offer moral support by calling on a regular basis and attempting to find out what provisions were in place to assist. On the other occasion, which was five years ago, since the abandonment was closer to home and I had gained minor experience from the other occasions I consulted the IMO’s Guidelines on Provision of Financial Security in Case of Abandonment of Seafarers. Section 4 of the resolution states that member governments should inform the flag state and seafarers’ countries and “cooperate and assist each other in the speedy resolution of the situation”.
I followed this protocol, if it can be considered such, and reported to the local consuls, foreign affairs, flag states, etc. To be succinct, there was no measure in place to systematically deal with the issue. In calling the IMO I was told to make a report and sent a form. I don’t recall what the ILO’s response was but I submitted the report form to both organisations with no response from either.
Fortunately, in this situation, the agents were still taking care of the needs of the seafarers. The agents had not been paid either and were unsure as to what was going on. There were no welfare facilities in this port. As a junior staff, the only ‘power’ I could leverage was a perception of ‘naming and shaming’; to let the respective parties (including the owner) know what the international guidelines were, what their responsibilities were and that the seafarers’ plight had gone public. The captain was still in contact with the owner so I was able on one occasion to speak with him in my capacity as a government official who was now in the picture.
The vessel was listed on GISIS as registered to one country, but when I contacted that registry I found out that it has been deregistered. Further investigations revealed that it was provisionally registered in another registry. The owner was also in the process of selling the vessel, that deal fell through and another purchaser had to be found.
From those experiences I learnt that the rhetoric does not do much to help seafarers in an actual situation. There is no systematic international process for dealing with abandonment. The consuls of some countries had no awareness of these aspects of shipping and their role in such situations. If seafarers are abandoned in port states without the wherewithal and the sympathy, understanding and experience of immigration officers, they are treated as illegal immigrants and deported (as was done in one case). The seafarers in the example mentioned had only to live on hope that the deal went through and the owner remained faithful to his obligations. Fortunately, this was the case and they were eventually paid their wages and repatriated. But what if the vessel had not been sold?