Seafarers' Rights International - Image © P. Terraz

The problem of abandonment

The problem of abandoned seafarers is a stark one. The International Labour Organization (“ILO”) keeps a database of crew who have been abandoned. This can be accessed at: (http://www.ilo.org/dyn/seafarers/seafarersbrowse.home). However the ILO list is far from definitive. Abandonment is not easily defined. A crew may be forsaken even though officially the ship has not been abandoned. Yet given the vital role of shipping in the global economy, any instance of a seafarer being abandoned far from home and without the means to get back home must be a source of concern.

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 a 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, and sometimes it is the crew who come off worst. When a crew on a merchant ship is abandoned in a foreign port, a familiar pattern of events often unfolds. The crew run out of fuel for generators, sometimes also food and water. Often the ship owner 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. On board, 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 on board and their families back home may have to beg to survive. For those left to pick up the pieces, the lack of a framework to adequately protect abandoned seafarers has been frustrating. 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. “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.”

INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS CONCERNING PROVISION OF FINANCIAL SECURITY IN CASE OF ABANDONMENT OF SEAFARERS

April 1998

The 77th session of the Legal Committee of the IMO indicated its support for the establishment of a joint IMO-ILO expert working group to examine the issue of financial security for claims for death, personal injury and abandonment of seafarers.

October 1999

The Joint IMO-ILO Ad Hoc Expert Working Group on Liability and Compensation Regarding Claims for Death, Personal Injury and Abandonment of Seafarers held its first meeting.

November 2001

The IMO Assembly (at its 22nd session) and the Governing Body of the ILO (at its 282nd session) adopted Resolution A.931(22) “Guidelines on Provision of Financial Security in Cases of Death and personal Injury of Seafarers” (the Guidelines). However, the Guidelines were stated to be an interim measure only and to be kept “under review”, and there was to be consideration of “other appropriate action for longer-term sustainable solutions to address the problems covered by the Guidelines”.

01 January 2002

Guidelines came into effect.

2002

The Joint Working Group continued to meet in parallel with the ILO meetings to adopt the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC 2006).

2004

A database was set up, hosted by the ILO, to record reports of abandoned crew

February 2006

The MLC is adopted by the international Labour Conference of the ILO under Article 19 of its Constitution at a maritime session in Geneva, Switzerland.

March 2009

Report of the ninth meeting of the Joint Working Group which recommended that:

  • The principles embodied in the draft texts contained in Appendices I and II to the Joint IMO-ILO Working Group report should be considered as a basis for finalising a mandatory instrument or instruments;
  • An amendment to the MLC 2006 was the best way to create such a mandatory instrument or instruments;
  • The IMO Legal Committee should remain seized of the issue and keep it under consideration in the event that amendment to the MLC 2006 proved not to be feasible or timely.

20 August 2012

The number of ILO member countries that had ratified the MLC 2006 reached 30, representing a gross tonnage of just below 60%. The criteria for the MLC to enter into force were now met.

20 August 2013

The MLC 2006 entered into force. The MLC 2006 requires Member States to ensure that shipowners shall provide “financial security to assure compensation in the event of the death or long term disability of seafarers due to an occupational injury, illness or hazard, as set out in national law, the seafarers’ employment agreement or collective agreement”.   This is in the context of the overall purpose of the Regulation 4.2 “[t]o ensure that seafarers are protected from the financial consequences of sickness, injury or death occurring in connection with their employment.”

11 April 2014

Amendments to the Code implementing Regulation 4.2 and appendices of the MLC were adopted by the Special Tripartite Committee on 11 April 2014.  The amendments were approved at the International Labour Conference in June 2014. The ILO then sends these proposed amendments 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 an expeditious and effective financial security system to assist seafarers in the event of their abandonment.

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