Sailors being cheated by the agents

2011.2.9-Irene.jpgTaking advantage of a weak regulatory authority, unscrupulous manpower agents have turned seafarer recruitment into a lucrative business of human trafficking, says Sailors Helpline, a 24/7 service in Chennai for Indian seafarers.

In an industry that boasts of several hundreds of new recruits every year, the helpline receives at least five complaints every month of sailors being cheated by the agents, having to serve in rust buckets under poor working conditions, or being paid lower-than-promised wages.

Officials at the Director General of Shipping say that there is no institutional mechanism to take action against such agents. Though regulations say that recruiters must hold Recruitment and Placement Licenses, there are hundreds of unlicensed agencies that fleece eager job seekers, says an official.

Typically, a job search in shipping starts with paying several lakhs to an agent. Unlucky seekers often run into agents that vanish from the scene with this money, much like unscrupulous agents promising jobs in the Gulf or in south east Asia. "In most of the cases, job seekers are helpless to file a complaint as they don't have any proof that they have paid the money to these agents," says Manoj Joy, the national coordinator of the helpline.

Even the lucky ones that do land jobs are often trapped in unseaworthy vessels where they are treated like slaves, says Joy. "Such Flag of Convenience (FOC) vessels, registered in small island countries with relaxed norms, employ the sailors for a pittance who live like cattle on board the vessels," he says.

The sailors are typically paid far less than what their agents at home promise them. A foreign flagged vessel seems like an attractive cash cow for unsuspecting sailors. "But, bound by iron clad contracts, they are often forced to serve for a certain period of time," Joy says.

Activists cite Philippines as an example of how to regulate the sailor recruitment business.