Seafarers’ Rights International survey exposes shocking treatment of crew
We are all tremendously enthused by human rights these days,with whole chambers full of top lawyers readily available to defend anyone before the highest court in the land, even invoking powerful international assemblies of jurisprudence if all else fails.
Human rights is a sort of allegory for our times, bathing the individual in a roseate glow of self-regard, protected by all manner of curious laws that require his or her rights to be respected.
It is, you might think, a jolly good thing too, with over-powerful states and bossy officialdom seeking to bury the rights of the many for the convenience of the few.
In such an age when human rights is so universal, it begs the question why seafarers are so lacking in this respect, given the modern tendency to criminalise them with a brutal enthusiasm not seen in the past.
You might suggest that seafarers moan too much in this respect. After all, in 2012 we criminally charge all manner of people for making professional errors; from doctors who killed their patients to nurses who got the decimal point wrong for the dose of medicine they were prescribing and lorry drivers whose attention wandered at the wheel.
But a shocking scale of criminal sanctions attached to seafaring has emerged in a recent report by Seafarers’ Rights International.
SRI polled 3,480 seafarers in eight languages over a 12-month period and secured responses from 68 nationalities. Its findings indicate what appears to be a shocking indictment of authorities hurling criminal charges at seafarers like confetti.
As we wring our hands over the seeming reluctance of young people all over the world to take up a sea career, one statistic from the SRI report stands out. Nearly one quarter of all masters reported that they had faced criminal charges.
This makes one ask why on earth anyone would aspire to senior rank, undertake all those years of study and examinations and the long years climbing the pole in this experience based profession.
Are shipmasters so singled out by the authorities because they are uniquely criminal in their behaviour, cavalier with human life or the environment or slapdash in exercising their professional duties?
Just as known career criminals become the first suspects when a crime is committed, one might think that the habits of ship masters must make the lives of the waterfront detectives astonishingly rewarding.
But your average criminal, ashore in many jurisdictions, will face a relatively easy ride compared to seafarers, if the SRI statistics are accurate — and there is no reason to doubt them.
Your friendly neighbourhood burglar or armed robber can count on legal representation when charged; not so 87% of seafarers. The authorities patiently read the burglar or armed robber his rights; not so for 89%of seafarers, who feel unfairly treated, intimidated and threatened.
Some years ago, my friend Malcolm MacLachlan, author of The Shipmasters’ Business Companion, took the trouble to count the offences under UK law for which a shipmaster might face criminal charges.
It was a mind-boggling number. I recall it soaring into the firmament, thanks to the modern tendency to criminalise anything that moves. Multiply this with the possibilities for criminal charges on an international voyage, sailing through numerous jurisdictions and you would think that a prudent ship master would permanently wear handcuffs, to save the inquisitors trouble.
This stems from a number of problems, not least the position of the master as the one wholly responsible for everything that goes on on board that ship, whether it arrives a couple of tonnes short in some frightful third world port or carries one aspirin too many in its medicine locker, to be triumphantly revealed by some oafish official with the intelligence of a parking attendant and the morals of a thief.
The opportunities offered by port state control in many parts of the world are manifold, corrupt officials delightedly searching out some trivial infraction of a local law, then throwing the book at the master.
But even in countries that fully understand human rights, it is clear that seafarers fall into a black hole, unsupported by the ship owners, by foreign affairs departments in their home countries, by flag states and, unless they are members of an efficient union, pretty much everyone else. We owe a debt of gratitude to SRI for highlighting these disgraceful statistics and placing the situation clearly before us.
But what are we going to do to bring more balance and fairness, justice and decency, to the way that seafarers are treated? Because if we do not act soon, the crewing situation will become intolerable—and for all the reasons above.