‘Seafarer abandonment should be called-out for what it is: the flagrant exploitation and neglect of vulnerable people. And in other walks of life, that is considered to be criminal behaviour.’ James Wilkes from consultants Gray Page goes on the offensive.
At last, I’ve found it! I’m not a human rights specialist or an MLC 2006 expert, so it’s taken a bit of researching. However, if anyone asks me where they can find a definition of seafarer abandonment I can now point them to the Text of the Amendments of 2014 to the Maritime Labour Convention.
“…a seafarer shall be deemed to have been abandoned where, in violation of the requirements of this Convention [the MLC 2006] or the terms of the seafarer’s employment agreement the shipowner:
(a) fails to cover the cost of the seafarer’s repatriation; or
(b) has left the seafarer without the necessary maintenance and support; or
(c) has otherwise unilaterally severed their ties with the seafarer including failure to pay contractual wages for a period of at least two months.”
It goes on to say:
“…necessary maintenance and support of seafarers shall include: adequate food, accommodation, drinking water supplies, essential fuel for survival on board the ship and necessary medical care.”
So, a definition of seafarer abandonment exists and I’m sure someone thinks that it helps in in cases of abandonment. Excellent!
Except that it’s not. It’s a very long way from being “excellent”, because when we see seafarers that have been abandoned, what we are observing is not a situation defined in the parlance of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). What we are witnessing is a crisis, at the centre of which are people who are being deprived of many of the basic necessities of life; people who have usually gone unpaid for many months (not just two), which consequently threatens the welfare of their families as well.
More than that, we are witnessing a set of circumstances that are in their end state.
Seafarer abandonment doesn’t happen overnight.
Like a disease it takes hold over a period of time and gets progressively worse if left untreated.
Unlike a disease, however, where often the symptoms can be equivocal or so mild as to make early diagnosis difficult, the early signs of abandonment are obvious to anyone who cares to look.
The first indication that a crew are facing serious trouble is when they are not being paid their wages.
There are only two reasons why a shipowner does not pay his crew; because he can’t or because he won’t.
A shipowner who can’t pay his crews’ wages – because there isn’t the cash in the business to do so – is insolvent.
A shipowner who won’t pay his crews’ wages is guilty of exploitation.
Either way, the consequences for the crew are largely the same and the direction of travel is going one way only, unless there is early intervention.
And therein lies the problem.
Modern shipping is systemically and culturally ill-suited toward intervening early to nip problems in the bud.
Whether it is in matters of safety, security or the welfare of its seagoing employees, the incentives not to act early are too strong. Invariably, those incentives are financial.
The system that is supposed to address seafarer abandonment actually transfers financial responsibility away from shipowners. It makes the act of abandonment someone else’s problem to deal with. It is shot-through with moral hazard.
In the first instance it forces seafarers to raise the alarm when they have not been paid their wages; something they are understandably reticent to do for fear of what it can mean for their current and future employability.
If unresolved at that point, it then falls then to flag Administrations, port state authorities, unions and, more often than not, charities to attempt to pick up the pieces of a crisis that deepens quickly and relentlessly.
Seafaring is an occupation that is inherently vulnerable to exploitation. Seafarers whose wages haven’t been paid cannot simply withdraw their labour or walk off the job. How do they do that? Where are they going to go?
Therefore, seafarer abandonment should be called-out for what it is: the flagrant exploitation and neglect of vulnerable people. And in other walks of life, that is considered to be criminal behaviour.
In recent years, nation states have been quick to criminalise seafarers. Now they need to be as quick to criminalise those who abandon them.