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End the scandal of seafarer abandonment, now and forever

Something is seriously wrong when crews are regularly stranded thousands of miles from home for years on end

Without rigidly enforced penalties for owners who evade best practice, those at the sharp end will continue to suffer

SEAFARERS have kept world trade going during the pandemic. They should be widely hymned and then properly rewarded, not callously ditched on the other side of the planet.

Yet too many endure a fate that speaks poorly of our industry.

Malevolent owners and operators know that they can get away with managing those who work for their profit with less than the dignity they merit.

Leave aside, for now, the ongoing repatriation crisis, a shocking state of affairs in itself.

Consider the rising number of cases in which crews are cut loose on literally stinking tonnage, tied up to rot endlessly in forgotten ports.

Sometimes, human beings linger on board these vessels for months and even years on end, scraping around for food and clean water, living in the dark, subsisting on the charitable handouts of concerned souls.

Regulations and guidelines — some of them ostensibly binding — are designed to make such outcomes impossible.

But not all states have ratified the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, which at least offers the hardly excessively generous stipulation of four months’ back pay and four months of provisions for survival, including the cost of repatriation.

Even where the convention applies, bad apples freely shrug off its letter and spirit alike. And they can gamble on getting away with it, because enforcement is too often relegated to mere afterthought.

Actual numbers involved might be small, but these are real lives and real livelihoods, and we are failing in our duty if we walk away. Allow us to set out a few examples.

In one instance, a vessel has been left for five years and is now starting to fall apart. Are those on board expected to sink with the ship?

In another, a young officer has found himself sole legal guardian of a ship left in Egypt for four years already, and must swim ashore for provisions, sometimes in freezing waters.

No one is willing to relieve him of this duty. This young man has been reduced to squalor, in what should be the prime of his life.

Or contemplate instead a bulk carrier in Kuwait, neglected for almost two years. Family funerals have been missed and the crew are on hunger strike until their plight is resolved.

Primary responsibility for the welfare and wellbeing of seafarers lies with shipowners. Under the MLC, seafarers are considered abandoned when a shipowner fails to cover the cost of the seafarer’s repatriation, leaves the seafarer without maintenance and support, or breaks ties with the seafarer — including failing to pay wages for at least two months.

Flag states must ensure there is a financial security system in place to assist seafarers in cases of abandonment. If the flag state fails to repatriate seafarers, the port state may arrange for their repatriation and recover the cost from the flag state.

Crew-supply countries also have responsibilities, including ensuring recruitment agencies have a system of protection to compensate seafarers.

These countries must assist when all else fails; seafarers are citizens too.

Yet somehow, when companies are in financial trouble, seafarers find themselves at the bottom of the pile. They are last to be paid.

Regulators are nowhere near tough enough, even on repeat offenders. Until there are meaningful financial penalties, this abhorrent behaviour will continue.

Our seafarers deserve better. No one in shipping should have to plead for justice.

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