I have been following Splash’s work on seafarer abandonment with a great deal of interest. Sam and the team are doing a great job, and they are definitely contributing positively to the conversation. This is unfortunately an issue that comes up far too often. It is a stain on our industry, and a personal tragedy for the seafarers affected. As such, this subject of seafarer abandonment is worthy of closer and consistent press attention. Many segments of the shipping industry have been challenged: What role can you, or should you, play? Are you doing enough to prevent abandonment of seafarers? Can you do more?
With nearly 90% of the global trade carried by ships, and 75% of all trading routes through oceans, the maritime industry is perhaps the world’s largest industry. However, this industry is not entirely about ships, companies and shore-based support; but it is an industry of people – the more than 1.2m seafarers engaged in international trading. As the prime movers of the global economy, seafarers deserve to have the best living and working conditions that we can offer, and that includes taking care of their welfare and personal well-being.
The Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC, 2006), which combines several labour instruments into one, is considered the mother of all labour conventions. However, the seafarer stories of neglect and abandonment have not stopped with its creation. As shipowners continue to struggle in difficult markets, the seafarers too often become victims. Since the entry into force of the MLC 2006 in 2013, we continue to see reoccurring cases of nonpayment of wages, poor provisions for food, denial of seafarers’ right to repatriation, and worse yet are the cases of abandonment. These are all considered a gross violation of the intent and requirements of the MLC 2006. For years following the implementation of the convention, we as a flag state continue to receive and investigate various cases of MLC 2006 violations. Some of these cases are mere allegations, however a majority of the claims are real cases where shipowners have neglected their obligations to the seafarers under the requirements of the MLC 2006.
Splash should be commended for bringing these cases to the attention of a wider audience. All of us have a responsibility to do what we can to minimise the chances of abandonment occurring and the impact on seafarers when it does. However, there are a lot of complications that don’t reveal themselves until you are deep into the legal chaos that abandonment creates. For example, from a flag state’s position:
1. A flag state cannot simply dispose of the ship even if we suspend or cancel registration, we are the last flag of reference. There may be a mortgage on the ship and we have an obligation to the mortgagor.
2. If the crew is repatriated, who takes care of the ship itself? Most port authorities will not knowingly allow a ship to be abandoned.
Neither of these make it right, but there are practicalities that can come into play and the solutions are never as easy as most would imagine. This is an area that, sadly, we must get involved in as well. In recent times the Liberian Registry’s administration has been faced with abandonment issues involving six ships.
Liberia’s administration takes these cases seriously. We make great efforts to investigate, find resolutions and, when necessary, take authoritative and administrative action against shipowners whom we find in violation of seafarers’ rights, welfare and well-being. To effectively impose our obligations to help distressed seafarers, the Liberian administration has developed an escalation process to deal with cases of seafarer neglect through to abandonment. This procedure provides a step-by-step action that the administration needs to take, all for the purpose of helping seafarers.
Complaints received by our administration are promptly acknowledged, and typically more evidence is requested from the complainant. Shipowners are asked for a response. Often complaints are simply resolved at this level. However, there are also times that disputes can escalate when allegations of violations committed by shipowners are proven. A simple MLC complaint of a seafarer may later become a full-blown case of abandonment.
Liberia will continue to follow up and push owners by giving them pressures that will further affect their commercial ability. When all avenues administratively have been taken by the flag, and all communications have failed, the final step is to offer repatriation to help the seafarers. I cannot speak for other flag states, but this is an action we take because it is morally the right thing to do.
Commercially it costs us, but we do it without fanfare.
In a more recent abandonment case that we have been faced with, we received notice last week from the Omani courts that we are permitted to send 15 seafarers home, at the flag state’s expense.
The underlying issue is around taking responsibility for those in which we owe a duty of care. MLC 2006 is a major industry-wide achievement, one which provides protection to crew and guidance to owners and managers. Unfortunately, violations of MLC 2006 do occur, and as long as they do, they damage everyone in our industry.