The number of reports from seafarers of unpaid wages have fallen, but still constituted the second largest number of calls to a UK-based seafarer helpline last year.
In a breakdown of calls to Seafarerhelp, which is run by the charity International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), the largest number of calls were for general information, such as the nearest seafarers’ centre (446 calls), but after this it was calls about unpaid wages – in total, 394 reports were made. However, this was a reduction from 451 reports recorded in 2013.
Cases of unpaid wages are always referred by ISWAN to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) for follow up. Asked by IHS Maritime as to its success with obtaining owed wages for seafarers, an ITF spokesman said that the ITF had assisted in a total of 1,589 cases of owed wages referred to the ITF in 2014, and had “recovered USD 59,372,806 in back pay for the seafarers involved”.
The ITF conceded that there are challenges both with getting the money to seafarers as well as claiming the money in the first place.
“There are challenges in getting the money to seafarers where a manning agent or even government may try and take it away from them, but we manage to get round those,” an ITF spokesman told IHS Maritime.
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On the challenges that face the ITF when going after money owed, the ITF spokesman listed several, “Companies going bankrupt and not having money to pay; companies being registered in jurisdictions where they have no assets and are unreachable; difficult jurisdictions where court cases take forever and require money up front; and issues with crewing agents taking money back from seafarers and having the power to be able to take away their future employment possibilities.”
Repatriation was still high on the list of calls made to Seafarerhelp. With 237 calls, repatriation was the fifth most common concern, and was an increase on the 230 calls made in 2013.
“These [calls are] usually [from] people who have come to the end of their contracts and want to go back home and the owner or ship manager has said you have to stay another four or five weeks,” explained ISWAN executive director Roger Harris, who explained that at the end of a contract, the ship might be the other side of the world from the seafarer’s home.
Harris warned, “The trouble is, if the seafarer walked off the ship at the end of the contract, then there is the possibility that they wouldn’t get paid or their air fare back [home]. So they have to stay on board until the shipowner agrees that they can go home and leave the ship.”
Again, these requests are referred by ISWAN to the ITF, or to one of the welfare missions.
Other issues among the top 10 recorded by Seafarerhelp about in 2014, were contract problems, bullying, health problems, and living conditions.
The numbers of cases and calls handled by the helpline in 2014 have increased since 2013, from 1,257 cases and 6,473 seafarers, to 1,920 cases and 7,210 seafarers, a 52.74% and 19.11% rise, respectively. The callers were of 84 different nationalities, and included 20 from the Commonwealth and 18 from European Union countries.
Harris attributed the increase partly to successful marketing of the helpline across social media (Facebook as well as a Live Chat facility were found to be more popular than a telephone call) but also “more awareness of the Maritime Labour Convention [MLC]” among seafarers, he said.
The MLC was also likely to be the reason why the helpline has reported an increase in “more complex” issues being reported, such as unfair dismissal and other welfare issues.
Not surprisingly, ISWAN’s data shows that the seven flag states most reported by seafarers include some of the top 10 largest flags, as ranked by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – Panama (1), Liberia (2), Marshall Islands (3), Singapore (5), Bahamas (7), Malta (9), Antigua & Barbuda (21).
However, both Panama and Singapore had improved performance last year, with Panama’s 128 reports an improvement on 2013’s 135; and Singapore’s 22 reports a nearly 50% decrease from last year’s 44. Antigua & Barbuda also improved its performance, with 22 reports in 2014 compared to 42 last year.
All other of the top seven flag States had more reports against them than the previous year.
The Bahamas had 44 reports against a low (uncited) figure in 2013; Liberia jumped from 56 reports in 2013 to 79 in 2014; and Malta from 36 in 2013 to 53 in 2014.