February 27, 2014

On the money

The hundred and fifty year old Mission to Seafarers- the wonderful ‘Flying Angel’ of my cadetship days- said last month that shipowners who do not pay seafarers their wages are more damaging to the industry than Somali pirates. More crew have been abandoned by owners over the last ten years than taken hostage, it says. It goes on to quote UN figures that say 2,379 sailors have been stranded on 199 ships in the past decade, with many more unreported.

Whether those statistics quoted are actually UN figures is immaterial; I have long treated the UN- or IMO’s- figures and resolutions with extreme scepticism anyway.  I am sure, though, that the ‘many more unreported’ statistics will actually be a multiple of the 2379 number, and a large multiple at that. And this is only for merchant ships, I bet. If one takes into account the horrific tales of treatment and abuse of fishermen across the world, a substantial number of whom work in slavery with no pay for years (with the additional dangers of torture and systematic abuse- even murder- to boot) , the numbers may run into the tens of thousands.

The Maritime Labour Convention 2006- the much touted ‘Seafarer Bill of Rights’ - took a full seven years to come into force, which is telling in itself. Now, six months after it its implementation, shipowners are still fighting the notion that seamen’s wages are guaranteed under the MLC. They don’t dispute that costs of repatriation are covered because doing that will bring them trouble- no State wants abandoned foreign citizens littering its soil; who will pay to send them back? But, left to their own devices, shipowners- even those owners that have never left a single seaman unpaid- still have no intention of guaranteeing those seamen’s wages. That is telling, too.

There is a propensity to think that unpaid wages is a third world owner and Flag of Convenience occurrence, and that most shipowners do not abandon their crews. But seamen know different. They know that dodgy shipowners are sometimes first world entities flying first world flags. They know that the flag of the ship or the nationality of the owner is little protection. They know that a scoundrel has no colour.

And fishermen know, judging from reports that have come out from the UK, Australia and elsewhere, that they can live and work- and sometimes die- in slavery in first world waters employed on ‘first world’ boats, not just in South East Asia or Africa or other parts of the third world. The UK, for example, has passed a new bill- the Modern Day Slavery Bill- to address this human trafficking problem. That such a bill was needed is telling in itself.

Returning to the merchant fleet: the MLC, in my view, was brought about mainly to protect shipowners from the first world from unfair competition from the politically incorrect third. The focus on unpaid wages post abandonment today is because of two reasons. The first is the sporadic media coverage of the extreme reluctance of shipowners to guarantee crew wages by saying that the MLC doesn’t cover them. The second is that in the recession, more shipowners are doing what they have always done when they run into financial difficulty; abandon their crews.

Merchant seamen know all this, or sense all this. They know - as Deirdre Fitzpatrick of Seafarers’ Rights International says, that “the industry is structured in a way that allows seafarers to be abandoned.”

Which is why most seamen everywhere send the unspent part of their wages home every month.  
Management graduates in suits call this risk management; Seamen in greasy overalls have been forever calling this ‘not leaving your money with the Company.’ Even though I worked for the better run setups, I too did the same thing with my money for more than thirty years.

That is not just telling. It is an indictment of shipping and the people who run it.


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