The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in Respecting the human rights of seafarers in global supply chains presents various forms of illicit activities against seafarers.
espite international minimum wages being set relatively very low, shipowners or operators consistently attempt to underpay or withhold pay from seafarers for work already done – income that seafarers’ families at home rely on, ITF claims.
Certain abusive behaviours in this isolated environment under the control of the employer may even amount to indicators of human trafficking for labour exploitation. This includes:
- Deceptive recruitment
- Failure to uphold contract terms or payment as promised
- Charging recruitment fees (directly, indirectly or partially). Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the Mission to Seafarers (MtS) recently found that seafarers are charged an average of $1,872 on illegal recruitment fees.
- Withholding wages or documentation
All of which may lead to debt bonded or forced labour. The ITF sees many cases where seafarers are forced to remain on board or risk never receiving what they are owed.
Under national laws, aspects of this behaviour may be criminal. ITF highlights that companies should take particular note of modern slavery risks for reporting requirements under national legislation, such as the modern slavery acts in the UK and Australia.
The hierarchical structure on board can encourage harassment, bullying, discrimination, or abuse along ranks. The most significant factor associated with workplace violence has been found to be seafarer country of origin, says ITF, with seafarers from the Philippines or Eastern Europe more likely to report exposure to it.
What is seafarer abandonment?
As ITF explains, the abandonment of seafarers arises if the shipowner has failed to pay wages for two months or more, has failed to repatriate the crew, or has left the crew without the necessary maintenance or support.
Wage deprivation, abusive living and working conditions, and extreme restriction of movement are indicators of forced labour that may be present in these cases.
Seafarers have a right under the MLC to be repatriated at no cost to themselves when their contracts expire or if the shipowner fails to respect contractual terms. International rules requiring minimum skeleton crew to remain on board a vessel for safety at sea complicate these cases.
The interrelated abandonment of crew is an alarming illicit practice specific to the treatment of seafarers.
Failure to repatriate
Some actors are unwilling to repatriate seafarers at the end of contract and at no cost to the seafarer, ITF adds. Operators fail to prepare visas and schedule the arrival of replacement crew in time to repatriate at the end of contracts, often to avoid countries where travel is more expensive or complicated, or to minimise the frequency and costs of crew change. Blame is often disingenuously assigned to states’ immigration rules.
For instance ITF reminds that during the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of seafarers were held on ships beyond the end of their contracts or forced to sign extensions. Many seafarers were told that repatriation was impossible, rather than the truth – that it was simply more complicated for the company to arrange.
Repeated extensions of contracts
Seafarers often fear blacklisting (a threat of penalty) if they refuse an employer request. Repeated extension of contracts in the context of power imbalance, restrictions on freedom of movement and impaired freedom to consent can be a direct indication of forced labour, ITF explains.
The legal absolute maximum time a seafarer may be on board is 11 months.
Denial of basic necessities
Seafarers not only work but also live on board, and sometimes do not even receive basic necessities for decent living conditions, health and wellbeing, such as regular and nutritious meals, drinking water, heating, light, electricity, or internet to communicate with their families at home.