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Abandoned but not lost: Towards global protection for abandoned seafarers

The complexities of globalization and its impact on shipping have made helping seafarers abandoned in foreign ports more pressing than ever. A recently created ILO database on reported incidents of abandonment of seafarers ( Note 1) is the first step in this direction. Since January 2004, the database has registered 40 cases of abandonment worldwide.

Article | 07 December 2006

PORT VICTORIA, Seychelles (ILO Online) - In January 2006, the Al Manara, a vessel sailing under the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis, left Somalia loaded with coal for Dubai. An engine failure caused the ship to drift for 18 days until it was towed in by Port Authorities of the Seychelles.

Certificates expired, food and water supplies ran out and the ship quickly became infested with rats and cockroaches. The cargo owner wasn't only unwilling to pay towage fees and supplies for the ship - but was also some six months behind in paying wages to the 18 seafarers from Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia and Ukraine.

In July 2006, four crew members were still on board, while four had been repatriated by the International Transport Workers' Federation. The remaining crew members were provided with subsistence by the Seychelles Port Authority.

"The case of the Al Manara is by no means exceptional", says ILO senior maritime expert Jean-Yves Legouas. "Sadly, there are still cases of abandonment. Although in percentage terms these may be considered minor in relation to world shipping with its more than 1.2 million seafarers, they are still painful and too often long drawn out experiences for the seafarers involved."

Since January 2004, the ILO database has registered 40 cases of abandonment of seafarers in ports worldwide, from Algeciras to Adelaide, and from Portland to Piraeus. More than 500 seafarers from all over the world were owed hundreds of thousands of US dollars in wages when the vessels were abandoned. The information stems from governments (usually Port States) and other relevant organizations, including seafarers' welfare associations, trade unions and shipowners, who are invited to send the appropriate information to the ILO.

"In the past year, very few, if any, cases have found a solution, in spite of a joint initiative of the Director-General of the ILO, together with the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), who have personally written letters to those Member States having a ship abandoned somewhere in the world, flying their flag", says Legouas.

It is not unusual for a vessel to be owned by nationals from one country, be registered under another flag, and be crewed by several other nationalities. "Depending on various factors, such as the port where it occurs, who owns the ship and the level of response of their consular or diplomatic national representation, seafarers may or may not get speedy and satisfactory redress for their plight", explains Legouas.

In some cases, however it is unclear exactly when a ship and crew can be considered abandoned, as contradictory orders can come from the company. For example promises of payment, food and supplies may be made but not honoured, thus clouding the moment when the abandonment occurs. "Some owners send a few hundred dollars at irregular intervals. Not enough to survive, but enough to make abandonment unclear", explains Legouas.

The operationalization of the ILO database which received support from the International Ship Suppliers' Association was decided at the Sixth Session of the Joint IMO/ILO Ad Hoc Expert Working Group on Liability and Compensation regarding Claims for Death, Personal Injury and Abandonment of Seafarers meeting in London on 19-21 September 2005.

In dealing with injury or death, the intricacies of nationality of seafarers and owners also arise. Resolving issues around claims for death, injury and abandonment will contribute to the ILO's new Maritime Labour Convention's aim of achieving greater consistency and general applicability in labour conditions for seafarers. Adopted at a special session of the International Labour Conference in February 2006, the Convention establishes a socio-economic floor to global competition in the maritime sector.

"The work of seafarers is an indispensable part of all our lives. As about 90 per cent in tonnage of world trade move by sea, and even more because they are workers who have rights, we have to ensure decent working conditions for all seafarers", concludes Legouas.


Note 1 - For more information, see /dyn/seafarers/seafarersbrowse.home.