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Seafarers and abandonment: The impact on wellbeing
July 26, 2021
The number of reported abandonment cases doubled from 40 in 2019 to 85 in 2020, according to the International Labour Organization. ISWAN's Director of Regions, Chirag Bahri, discusses the serious problem of abandonment and the ordeal faced by the crew members involved.
Ships and seafarers carry 80% of world’s trade by volume (UNCTAD, 2018) and seafarers are often seen as a neglected and invisible workforce. The Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC 2006), which is regarded as the fourth pillar of international maritime law, has defined abandonment as the violation of rights of repatriation and payment of wages for seafarers.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019, various maritime charities and welfare organisations including the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) have reported that abandonment of vessels and their crew is not a rare phenomenon and highlighted the increase in the number of abandonment cases since 2020. ISWAN – which operates a 24/7, free-of-cost dedicated helpline for seafarers, SeafarerHelp – logged 40 new cases involving abandonment last year. The reason could be the economic instability and global recession that the world is facing since the onset of the pandemic; some shipowners and operators have become bankrupt and as such are not able to support their employees ashore as well as those on vessels.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) have developed an international database to record and update such cases of abandonment. As per this database on abandoned seafarers, nearly 7,000 seafarers were abandoned on vessels worldwide between 2004 and January 2021. Seafarers from main labour supply nations such as India, Russia and the Philippines account for nearly 35% of those abandoned at sea. Some of these seafarers had to go through an inhumane ordeal while they were abandoned for months and years. It needs to be particularly noticed here that in the majority of cases, the seafarers are the sole breadwinners for their families and when such an incident occurs, not only are the seafarers affected but this also impacts all of those who depend on them. Such an incident leaves behind a major scar on the seafarer and their family which is hard to forget.
Due to the immense sufferings of the seafarers and their families, amendments to the MLC 2006 were proposed and came into effect from 18th January 2017. Under these amendments, seafarers are covered with four months’ wages and repatriation along with their livelihood needs through their P&I club1 under the CIOFS2 certificate. It could have been assumed that availability of this financial security would have resulted in faster resolutions of abandonment cases with the seafarers being repatriated and their dues settled. However, with the reports for 2019 and 2020, it appears that these incidents are still affecting seafarers who are not completely aware of how to invoke the financial security after being abandoned by their shipowners. It is noticed that these seafarers have been staying on board their vessels for prolonged periods with no access to the basic rights and necessities and as such the provisions under MLC 2006 are not fully adhered to. This unfortunate situation in which a seafarer finds themselves while they are abandoned is also an infringement to their human rights.
To make the matter worse, the seafarers, while being abandoned, are not allowed to leave the vessel as per principles of Safe Manning3, as amended by the IMO. Under these provisions, safe manning is a function of the number of qualified and experienced seafarers necessary for the safety and security of the ship, crew, passengers, cargo and property and for the protection of the marine environment. The port state where the crew and vessel are abandoned does not allow the crew to leave the vessel unless the issue is resolved or it is directed by the court. Hence, such cases are sometimes equated with being held on a floating prison or being caught in an inhumane trap.
The ILO’s sectoral meeting on the ‘Recruitment and Retention of Seafarers and the Promotion of Opportunities for Women Seafarers’, held between 25th February and 1st March 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland, also highlighted abandonment as one of the factors that influenced seafarers to leave the seafaring profession. An incident such as abandonment can have serious ramifications on each individual and those who are dependent on them. The entire community suffers when such an awful incident takes place and it impacts the mental, social, financial and emotional wellbeing of everyone involved.
Below is a map created by Periplous who have derived data from the ILO’s international database on abandoned seafarers and reported a recent increase in the number of cases. It is further reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) still accounts for 12% of all global abandonment cases4. Joseph (2020) in his research work on Abandonment of seafarers: challenges and prospects under Maritime Labour Convention, 20065 has highlighted that 90 countries still have not ratified the MLC 2006. This is a matter of concern as abandonment occurring on board a non-ratifying state flagged vessel trading within its state may not be able to provide support to the seafarers on board. The crew could also be recruited from labour supply nations that have not ratified MLC 2006 thus could not protect the seafarers’ rights.
In 2017, Eliteway Marine Services, a UAE-based company, had abandoned all eight of its vessels, leaving 31 Indian seafarers and other nationalities including Eritrians, Philippines, Sudanese and Tanzanians to go through a horrific ordeal on unseaworthy vessels for nearly 24-30 months. The crew reported that they had no food to eat, water to fulfil their thirst or power on board to stay indoors. As a result, the crew suffered skin infections, rashes, malnutrition and overall poor wellbeing. They depended on the mercy of following vessels or maritime charities to assist them during this traumatic time. The crew used to live out on the open deck in the absence of air conditioning due to having no fuel to run the onboard generators – it is worth noting that the temperatures in the Gulf during summer rise to nearly 50°C. The Mission to Seafarers in the UAE and ISWAN South Asia worked tirelessly with various stakeholders which resulted in the homecoming of the seafarers after they were forced to accept part payment of their pending dues. ISWAN also assisted the families of these seafarers with financial grants from the Seafarers Emergency Fund (SEF) that helped them to look after their basic living needs and continue to provide education to the children at home.
The Government of the UAE, which has not signed the MLC 2006 due to existing labour laws and constitutional barriers in the country, initiated several reforms in response to shipowners using UAE waters to abandon their ships and relinquish all responsibility. However, the new proposed maritime law which aims to provide more powers to authorities in cases of abandonment is yet to be implemented.
The crew of MT IBA in the UAE received their pending salaries which had remained unpaid for the last 32 months. The crew had no option but to stay on board. The crew mentioned to a news network that if they decided to set foot on land, they risked being detained for not having the right documents. They further faced unique challenges as one of the seafarers from Myanmar was concerned about not being able to renew his expired passport amid political tensions in the country due to the military coup. The least he expected was a delay to return to meet his children and wife who he had not seen since 2017. Luckily, all the seafarers returned home back in May and had an emotional reunion with their families.
ISWAN was approached by seafarers of the vessel ULA, who had been abandoned in the Port of Shuaiba in Kuwait since 2019. The crew reported in their grievance the poor condition of food and water on board which lead to the starving of the crew on board. They further added that the ship did not have fuel oil which is required to run the generators in order to then run auxiliary machineries and prepare food on board.
The Qatar-based ship owner was informed many times of the awful conditions on board but it seems that no concrete steps were taken which could have resolved the situation. Meanwhile, the Palau flag of the vessel also withdrew their registration and abandoned the crew which also invited a great deal of criticism, especially from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which has been providing assistance to the seafarers and highlighting their issues with respected agencies.
The seafarers were not fully aware of the new amendments brought into the MLC 2006, which safeguard their rights during an abandonment. The key elements of this amendment are:
‘(a) Outstanding wages and other entitlements due from the shipowner to the seafarer under their employment agreement, the relevant collective bargaining agreement or the national law of the flag State, limited to four months of any such outstanding wages and four months of any such outstanding entitlements;
(b) All expenses reasonably incurred by the seafarer, including the cost of repatriation and
(c) The essential needs of the seafarer including such items as: adequate food, clothing where necessary, accommodation, drinking water supplies, essential fuel for survival on board the ship, necessary medical care and any other reasonable costs or charges from the act or omission constituting the abandonment until the seafarer’s arrival at home.’
Sadly, these amendments can only be enforced providing the flag of the vessel has ratified the MLC 2006 or the port of vessel where the crew is abandoned has ratified it.
The case of the vessel ULA was engulfed in legal tangles in court earlier this year and the innocent crew on the ship went on hunger strike in January 2021 in order to demonstrate the urgency with which they could exercise their human rights and be repatriated. Some of the seafarers had lost their loved ones at home and could not even attend their funerals; others mentioned that their kin were battling for medical care at hospital and the seafarers were needed to return home to provide the necessary care. The crew finally returned home in June 2021 after prolonged efforts led by the ITF.
Further, the world cried on 4th August 2020 when an explosion of magnitude of 3.3, caused due to a fire igniting a cache of ammonium nitrate at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut, resulted in the death of nearly 200 people, injuring more than 7,500 and affecting more than 300,000 lives. Such catastrophic destruction threw shockwaves across neighbouring countries and heavily damaged life and property. The vessel named Rhosus and its crew were abandoned in Port of Beirut in Lebanon in 2013 and, thereafter, its cargo of ammonium nitrate was piled up at the warehouse.
Bankruptcy and financial losses, presently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are being attributed as the leading cause of such a rise in abandonment cases. Unfortunately, some of these shipowners have indulged in unethical practices and forgotten their own employees; these are the same human lives who are working for their companies through good and bad times. The seafarers working on extended contracts, away from their loved ones during the ongoing pandemic crisis, have demonstrated the highest professional behaviour that ensured supplies continued to be delivered across the world. The poor and compromising attitude of some of these operators can have an impact on the overall stature of this noble profession as well. The responsible parties could have tried to explore possible solutions to resolve the crisis rather than putting the lives of the seafarers in danger.
Post-homecoming, seafarers who have suffered an awful ordeal such as abandonment have been guided and aided by ISWAN’s regional team in South Asia, who help them to reassess their lives and be able to stand on their own to support their families. ISWAN assisted in some cases to help seafarers renew their documents or followed up with the maritime administration on their concerns. ISWAN is running a campaign in India to encourage seafarers to join shipping through registered crewing agencies only and to not fall prey to fraudulent agents, which is also one of the major issues in labour supply nations.
ISWAN has also published a good practice guide – ‘Arrested and Detained Vessels, and Abandoned Seafarers’ – which aims to assist port welfare committee members and welfare agencies dealing with incidents of seafarers being abandoned and vessels being arrested or detained. The guidance outlines the responsibilities of the authorities and other organisations that might become involved when problems are identified aboard a vessel whilst in port.
Moving forward, we suggest:
Lobbying those countries who still have not ratified the MLC 2006. As per the ILO website, nearly 90 countries have yet not signed the crucial amendment which was brought in to protect the rights of seafarers.
Raising awareness among seafarers on the provisions in the MLC 2006 and how to identify an abandonment case, whom to approach and where to find further assistance. ISWAN raises awareness among seafarers through social media as well as interacting with seafarers at maritime institutes. The guidance pictured below is shared with seafarers.
Making free legal aid available for seafarers to guide them and identify/initiate steps through legal recourse to help resolve their issues and facilitate repatriation. It has been observed that most of the cases concerning abandonment are drawn into legal battles and the crew often have no knowledge or awareness on it.
Setting up dedicated funds that can help the seafarers who are abandoned on vessels, especially those which do not comply with the provisions of the MLC 2006. This could reduce the ongoing stresses on seafarers who often do not have the proper means to survive in difficult circumstances. The families of such seafarers should receive per month an ex gratia amount to provide a decent living and enable them to support other dependents at home. Seafarers also need psychological and humanitarian support after returning home, and such funds can look after the necessary and essential needs which may help to improve the individual’s mental as well as physical wellbeing.
Imposing strict penalties and penal provisions in law against operators who wilfully abandon the crew at mercy of other stakeholders and to implement existing rules and laws.
1P&I club: A Protection and Indemnity or P&I club is a non-governmental, non-profitable mutual or cooperative association of marine insurance providers to its members which consists of ship owners, operators, charterers and seafarers under the member companies. Accessed from www.marineinsight.com.
2CIOFS – Certificate of Insurance or Other Financial Security in respect of shipowner’s liability issued by flag state under MLC, 2006 as amended.
3Safe Manning: as per IMO, The objectives of these Principles are to ensure that a ship is sufficiently, effectively and efficiently manned to provide safety and security of the ship, safe navigation and operations at sea, safe operations in port, prevention of human injury or loss of life, the avoidance of damage to the marine environment and to property, and to ensure the welfare and health of seafarers through the avoidance of fatigue.