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Crew abandonment: owners need to be held accountable

09/03/2017

Contact us “if the ship begins sinking or someone dies.” It was a brief message, sent by the owners of four merchant ships abandoned at the UAE’s Ajman anchorage in Sharjah.

The 41 Indian sailors to whom it was addressed had repeatedly asked for help. They were surviving on dal and rice. They had enough water to drink but not enough for washing. Most had not been paid for 15 months. Two of the ships were leaking.

Despite requests, the owners appeared to have done nothing to bring the crews home or even to have provided for their basic welfare.

The Sharjah case was far from unique. What was unusual was the way the seafarers’ ordeal was brought to an end. The plight of the ships’ crews briefly attracted media attention in their home country and at the beginning of 2017 a minster in the Indian government promised: “We will resolve this.”

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There has been a welcome for amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). The amendments, which came into force in January 2017, go some way to addressing the issue of abandonment.

The Convention, which currently covers almost 97% of the world fleet and which has been ratified by 79 countries, is sometimes known as the Seafarers’ Bill of Rights. A ratifying country is meant to implement its terms through its own national laws.

In brief, the amendments to the convention – agreed in 2014 – say shipowners should insure themselves against the costs of abandonment.

The MLC, however, is only as powerful as the ratifying countries choose to make it. Described as an ‘international legal instrument’, it does not apply directly to ships or owners.

Ratifying countries can inspect the ships registered under their flag and can issue a certificate if a ship complies with the MLC.

They can also inspect any ship coming into one of their ports to see if they are MLC complaint. If a ship fails to show compliance it can be detained.

The weakness of the convention is that the flag states most likely to ensure compliance are those most likely to have responsible owners their books.

States that are weak on compliance, or which have not even ratified the convention, are the ones less scrupulous owners gravitate towards.

The MLC amendments alone will not end the practice of abandonment.

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The shipping industry has been going through the worst downturn in 30-years. Several major shipping firms have collapsed. Any number of ‘one-vessel operations’ have slipped into obscurity.

It can hardly be a surprise that abandonment – a symptom of economic distress – appears to be on the rise.

The only active database tracking ship abandonment is run by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). That database recorded 13 cases of abandonment in 2016.

The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), which operates a helpline for abandoned crews, suggests the figure is higher.

What is clear is that some owners see the abandonment of vessels and crew as a legitimate ploy in the face of failing revenues.

Shortly after the Indian government minister promised to intervene in Sharjah there were reports that the crew of an offshore supply vessel, again from India, had been abandoned in a UK-port for over 200-days.

After a campaign by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) an Indian bank agreed to settle the wages and discussions began to arrange flights home.

One UK commentator claimed the crew’s experience was “a stark example of what an unfettered liberalised market does to a workforce.” She called it: “Globalisation at its most raw.”

Meanwhile the ITF, which is made up of some 700 unions worldwide, was taking-up another case, this time of the crew of a Panama-flagged, Turkish-owned bulk carrier abandoned in the port of Algiers.

“The company has washed its hands of them, yet continues to operate other vessels. It’s a human disgrace,” said an ITF inspector. “I believe [the owners] are happy to see the men reach breaking point in the hope that they will leave without a cent of what they’re owed.”

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It is often left to charities and unions to highlight hardships faced by abandoned crews but not everyone in the wider shipping community has been silent.

Arthur Bowring, who recently retired as managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSOA), has spoken of his “extreme” concern and has lamented the absence of a mechanism to bring irresponsible owners to book.

As well as being a disaster for the crews, a decision to abandon responsibility for a vessel often leaves cargoes stranded mid-voyage with predictable complications along the supply-chain.

Sometimes the problem of tracking the owners responsible seems almost insurmountable. “Unfortunately owners who abandon their seafarers are likely to have disappeared,” said Bowring told the maritime news provider Splash 24.

Names change, memories are short, and some shipowners seem to have relationships with their flag administration that allow them to continue as if nothing happened.

Katie Higginbottom, maritime projects and campaigns leader for the ITF, claims that, despite exceptions, the maritime community as a whole has been unwilling to take responsibility for the worst end of the industry.

“We spent some 10 years in an ILO/IMO (International Labour Office/ International Maritime Organization) group on abandonment and crew claims before the adoption of the MLC,” Higginbottom told Gray Page.

“We considered abandonment to be a totally unacceptable breach of human rights, a catastrophe for the seafarers and their families and a blight on the industry. Our shipowner counterparts thought it a statistical insignificance that didn’t warrant inflicting costs on virtuous owners.”

The adoption of the MLC amendments, she said, showed the mood had shifted, if only a little, and that there was recognition the industry as a whole had to take some responsibility.

She and Bowring agree that owners who abandon their crew should never own ships again.

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The amendments to the MLC require ship owners to have a financial security system in place to ensure they can still pay compensation to seafarers and their families in the event of abandonment, death or long-term disability due to occupational injury. They also require ships to carry documentary proof to show the insurance is in place.

ITF president Paddy Crumlin hopes the MLC amendments will “finally treat the running sore of crew abandonment” and the Federation’s general secretary Steve Cotton has said it is now for everyone “to work together” to see the amendments are put into action.

But Higginbottom cautions that the MLC will only make a significant difference if it is effectively implemented and properly policed.

“The combination of requirements for paying regular wages and repatriation obligations and the PSC and flag state sanctions should really limit the scope for substandard operators,” she said.

“But where vessels are operating in areas where MLC is not ratified (that includes some Middle East and Gulf states) or where there is limited capacity and resources to implement (parts of Africa) it’s virtually impossible to enforce.”

The Convention is, at the very least, setting a standard. It could provide the mechanism for tackling a shameful problem. A tiny percentage of owners will be happy to ignore it. The maritime community including crews, flag states and ship operators should work to see they are driven out of the industry.

 

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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