As the industry moves into 2024, we see continuing examples of seafarers caught in geopolitical conflicts. Covid brought the issue of seafarer conditions to the fore, but has anything really changed? Stories of respected Masters and crews being prosecuted, or ships and their crews detained until payment of fines are still widespread. Have the authorities really made progress in this area? Or are seafarers – and shipowners – still being used as pawns in a money game?
This question was asked by Ship Management International magazine, in a feature article published at the end of 2023.
Deirdre Fitzpatrick is the Executive Director of SRI, the body which was launched in 2010 to carry out research into all aspects of the legal framework surrounding those who work at sea and those who operate vessels.
To set the scene SMI first asked Ms Fitzpatrick about the work of the centre. She is very clear that SRI is not a campaigning organisation – so how does it help the industry? She explains: “SRI is a research centre working closely with the shipping industry, world governments, UN agencies and others, and providing them with the facts they need to make informed and evidence-based decisions. Our aim is to support the industry in achieving an efficient and fair maritime industry – and of course the decent employment of seafarers.”
The law as it applies to seafarers and ship operators is extremely complicated and many involved in the industry would admit to struggling with its complexities. Deirdre frequently cites this quote from the Independent, when the Sea Empress was spilling oil into the sea off Milford Haven in the UK in 1996:
“Built in Spain, owned by a Norwegian, registered in Cyprus, managed from Glasgow, chartered by the French, crewed by Russian, flying a Liberian flag, carrying an American cargo and pouring oil on to the Welsh coast. But who takes the blame.”
In fact, today, it is very often the crew, she says. “An investigation under the Casualty Investigation Code is mandatory following major incidents, and additional inquiries including criminal investigations are often triggered by the authorities, leading already traumatised seafarers to find themselves behind bars and unwittingly facing what is often an opaque justice system in an unknown country.”
She is currently working on new research to be presented to the IMO Legal Committee next year, supporting the work of the Joint IMO-ILO Working Group. This partnership seeks to address fair treatment concerns for seafarers detained on suspicion of maritime crimes, paving the way for the development of tangible proposals to protect their rights and well-being.
In 2010 the work of seafarers was far less visible than it is today. “Our presence has helped to generate much greater interest in the subject of seafarers’ rights and has contributed new resources to those representing and employing seafarers,” says Deirdre. “Over the past decade or so, there have been many new entrants and it is great now to see so many other stakeholders and role players working in this field.”
The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) has played a major role in improving working conditions in the industry since the inception of SRI. It came into force in 2013 and is now being actively implemented and enforced around the world. It promises seafarers decent working conditions and creates conditions of fair competition for shipowners, she explains. However, the key lies in its effective execution.
Take the pandemic, for example, says Ms Fitzpatrick. “Covid laid bare how the interests and needs of the maritime industry fall across and between various government departments in any state, often to the detriment of the seafarer and the shipowner. We saw the crew change crisis, with seafarers stuck at sea for more than a year at a time while family and friends were suffering at home. Some world governments were reluctant to engage with the maritime industry, and even when the Covid situation eased, seafarers faced a vaccination lottery.”
This really was a wake-up call for us all, she says, as seafarers continued to move goods around the world but at the same time were denied some of their basic human rights. “The ILO Committee of Experts asserted that during Covid the MLC was widely disregarded around the world, a statement that responsible shipowners and their crews would find difficult to contradict,” she said.
Deirdre believes that the role of the seafarer has been strengthened as a result of Covid. “Seafarers gained greater visibility through their work and the world at large came to a greater appreciation of the role that they play. We also saw new levels of cooperation within our industry, with the International Transport Federation (ITF) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) working together to drive forward guidelines and provide support to both ship operators and crews.
“Seafarers today have a much higher profile at the IMO and post Covid we are seeing a greater focus on addressing the challenges of implementing and enforcing these laws,” she says. “At the IMO, standards of implementation are being improved through the IMO Member State Audit Scheme (IMSAS) which did not exist when SRI began. The ILO has a unique supervisory system to ensure that MLC is properly implemented and achieves decent work for seafarers and a level playing field for shipowners.”
New technology also provides seafarers with great opportunities as well as challenges. “The pace of change in the industry – with a focus on decarbonisation, greater automation and an understanding of ESG – is such that properly qualified seafarers will always be valued,” she says.
Despite the work of SRI and other bodies, many of the difficulties that seafarers have historically faced are still present in the industry today, in particular criminalisation, scapegoating, unpaid wages and abandonment.
“We still need changes in laws and regulations to better protect seafarers and support the maritime industry,” she says. “But this cannot occur in isolation and must be accompanied by increased attention and resources from all stakeholders, recognising the global nature of the shipping industry and that seafarers need special protection”.
So – are seafarers better off today than they were when SRI was established?
Deirdre replies in the affirmative: “In our work, many seafarers tell us that they feel their profession is more valued. Whilst the whole industry must work together to ensure that all seafarers are treated decently, we are very pleased that SRI has been able to play a visible role in the progression of seafarers’ rights since 2010 – in particular through our work with IMO and ILO and at national level with governments. The industry is changing much faster than ever before, and we look forward to the contribution that we can make in the decade to come.”
Article taken from Ship Management International magazine – issue 105