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 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.
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 club under the CIOFS certificate. 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.
To make the matter worse, the seafarers, while being abandoned, are not allowed to leave the vessel as per principles of Safe Manning, as amended by the IMO. 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.
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 cases.
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. They depended on the mercy of following vessels or maritime charities to assist them during this traumatic time.
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.
This article is shared by courtesy of ISWAN – the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, a membership organisation which works to promote and support the welfare of seafarers all over the world. Read the full article here.
ISWAN has also published the following practice guide, which aims to assist port welfare committee members and welfare agencies dealing with incidents of seafarers being abandoned and vessels being arrested or detained.