The problem of abandonment
The problem of abandoned seafarers is a stark one of human hardship. The International Labour Organization (ILO) keeps a database of cases of abandonment and, given the vital role of shipping in the global economy, the figures should be a source of concern.
As of March 2014, the ILO’s Abandonment of Seafarers Database listed the alarming figure of 159 abandoned merchant ships. But the ILO list is far from definitive. Abandonment is not easily defined (Definitions of Abandonment) and a crew may have been forsaken even though officially the ship has not been abandoned.
Each instance of a seafarer being abandoned far from home and without the means to get back is an individual story of enormous hardship. The real extent of the problem has never been accurately measured.
What is abandonment?
Abandonment can happen for a number of different reasons. It is often a calculated economic decision by a ship owner facing bankruptcy, insolvency or the arrest of its vessel by creditors. In many cases, vessels are abandoned after they are detained by port state control inspectors as unseaworthy. The global economic downturn has hit some operators hard, but it is often the crews who come off worst.
When a crew on a merchant ship has been abandoned in a foreign port, there is very often a depressingly familiar pattern of things that start happening. They run out of fuel for generators, sometimes also food and water. Often the ship owner stops answering his phone and cannot be traced. On other occasions, the ship owner remains in the background, sometimes threatening the crew, more often making false promises that he cannot keep. Onboard, phone cards run out of credit and seafarers cannot call home. The mood sinks and tempers flare, a potent mix exacerbated by boredom. And the impact of abandonment stretches far beyond the ship itself. When seafarers have not been paid for months and cannot get back home, their families suffer too. Crew onboard and their families back home, are left begging for handouts in order to survive.
For those left to pick up the pieces in a case of abandonment, the lack of a framework to adequately protect seafarers is frustrating. “We see this time and time again, yet nothing is ever done to stop it,” said Jose Manuel Ortega, National Coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation in Spain, and a man who has dealt with numerous such cases over the years. “How is it possible that a ship owner can just walk away from his crew?”
Rear Admiral Charles Michel, former Chief of the US Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law, and Amber Ward, Staff Attorney at the Operations Law Group of the US Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law, reflected on the plight of abandoned seafarers in a joint paper published in 2009. They summed up the problem concisely: “At best, abandoned seafarers are often subject to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and at worst, they may find themselves in life-threatening conditions with no means of sustenance,” they wrote. “It should be unacceptable in this modern age that crew members continue to be abandoned in foreign ports without food or water, the financial resources to get home, or their earned wages.”
The international community has worked on a regulatory framework designed to protect seafarers and geared to their very specific circumstances. But the efforts have been painfully slow (international efforts). The ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), which was adopted in 2006, and came into force in August 2013, could go a long way to improving working conditions for those who earn their living at sea. Amendments to the MLC 2006, agreed at a meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the MLC in April 2014, seek to create a mandatory financial security net for abandoned seafarers, thereby removing abandonment as a viable business decision.
The amendments will now be presented for approval at the next International Labour Conference in June, requiring a two-thirds vote cast by delegates present.
If approved, the amendments will be sent to states that have ratified the MLC with a two-year period for disagreement. Following this, the amendments will be deemed agreed upon unless dissent is heard from 40% or more of the states that represent 40% of the gross tonnage of the ships from nations that have ratified the MLC.
The amendments, if agreed upon, will require member states to ensure ships sailing under their flags maintain a financial security system to cover contingencies such as personal injury or death, long-term disability or abandonment. Vessels will be required to carry on aboard a certificate proving their coverage, in the form of either insurance, a national fund, social security scheme or similar arrangements.
Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI) Project
As part of our research project on abandonment, SRI has produced a series of practical advice notes for seafarers facing abandonment and those assisting them. SRI aims to keep the issue of abandonment prominently high on the agenda of the international community, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders so that the amendments to the MLC are not just theoretical but also deliver for seafarers practical and enforceable rights.