Stranded at Sea: The Plight of Abandoned Seafarers

Credits: Flavio Gasperini/Unsplash

Commercial seafarers might be the workforce that people rely on the most but think about the least. The vast majority of goods traded around the world are transported on ships. Capitalism wouldn’t work without the almost 2mn people who work on them. But it seems to take a lot for them to get noticed, reports the Financial Times.

Global crisis for seafarers

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, more than 300,000 commercial seafarers were left stranded on their ships well past the expiry of their contracts, because virus control measures and travel restrictions prevented crews from being rotated.

Part of the problem then was the length of time it took many countries to classify them as “key workers” in spite of the fact that their work was, quite clearly, key.

They have been caught up in the war in Ukraine too: according to the International Chamber of Shipping, 331 seafarers have been stuck on 62 ships trapped in Ukrainian ports since the war began a year ago. The ICS, together with 30 other organisations, wrote last month to UN secretary-general António Guterres to try to publicise their plight and push for a negotiated solution that could help them leave safely.

But it doesn’t always take a global crisis for seafarers to end up adrift. Sometimes ship owners just abandon them, maybe after they have underestimated the cost of running a voyage, or when they realise a ship needs investment and it would be less costly just to walk away. Under international law, a seafarer is deemed to have been abandoned if the ship owner fails to cover the cost of their repatriation, has left them without maintenance and support or has otherwise cut ties with them, including by failing to pay their wages for at least two months.

There they are all of a sudden without anyone paying their wages and caring for them. In the worst cases, they are on board a ship that no longer has energy supply, can’t run generators — if it’s cold they can’t heat themselves, if it’s hot they can’t cool themselves, they might have no water, no food,” says Steen Lund, chief executive of ship vetting specialist RightShip, which tracks data on abandonments.

Seafarer abandonments

It’s not always possible for seafarers to leave an abandoned ship. They might not have a visa to enter a country, or the local authorities might say they have to stay on board to keep the ship safe.

Even if they can leave, many don’t want to walk away empty-handed because they are owed money their families have been counting on. In one recent case, a Syrian seafarer called Mohammed Aisha was trapped on an abandoned cargo ship in Egypt for four years after a local court declared him the ship’s legal guardian. He had to swim to shore every few days to charge his phone.

Abandonments are relatively rare, but they seem to be on the rise. Between 2006 and 2016, there were typically between 10 and 25 official abandonments reported each year, according to the International Labour Organization’s database, with the exception of the recession year of 2009. But more recently, the figures have climbed sharply.

Insurance against abandonment

Last year, 118 cases were reported involving 1,841 seafarers, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which reports most of these to the ILO. Seafarers from the Philippines, India and Pakistan were the most affected, while the abandonments happened in the waters of 46 countries.

There has been some progress made in helping seafarers more effectively when they are abandoned. A new international rule in 2017 required ships to have insurance against abandonment, which pays out to cover the cost of seafarers’ wages and repatriation. The catch is it only applies to vessels flagged to countries that have ratified the Maritime Labour Convention, and even then, compliance hasn’t been perfect.

Still, the ITF says it has made a difference: about 60 per cent of last year’s cases involving insurance have been resolved, compared with about 40 per cent of cases without. Indeed, it is possible the rise in reported abandonments is partly due to more seafarers knowing it is worth reporting. RightShip is also trying to use data to track ship owners that abandon seafarers, so decent companies at the top of the supply chain know which ones to avoid.

But outside the industry, who knows if it will go on at all? “Shipping is just so unlike any other industry in [terms of] what’s tolerated,” says Stephen Cotton, the ITF’s general secretary. “If you were trapped at work for days or weeks chained to a desk, there would be outrage, so why do we let it go on in vessels?

Column chart of Number of abandonments reported to the ILO by year of notification showing Seafarer abandonment is on the rise

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Source: Financial Times


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