New Internationalist

Seafarers in the firing line

September 2013

Sailors suffer extreme violence at the hands of pirates but the root of their problems is less headline-grabbing – the exploitation that comes with a deregulated labour market, as Olivia Swift reports.

Vietnamese sailor Vu Van Ba [Related Image]
Pirates’ victims are overwhelmingly seafarers from poor nations. Above, Vietnamese sailor Vu Van Ba is reunited with his parents after 18 months held hostage off the coast of Somalia. © Ngyuen Huy Khan/Reuters

‘It was truly like being born again. We had given up hope and suddenly we were brought back to life.’ These were the words of a crew member of the MV Iceberg when released from 33 months of captivity in the hands of pirates off the Somali coast. It was 23 December 2012 – the crew member’s birthday – and followed a two-week siege by the local maritime police.

The crew’s imprisonment aboard their hijacked ship was as traumatic as their eventual rescue. One of the initial crew of 24 is reported to have killed himself and another is missing – thought to have tried to swim ashore. The rest of the crew were tied up and beaten daily. The chief engineer was singled out for even worse treatment. He had his ear slashed, was kept in solitary confinement for a year and was almost suffocated with plastic bags.

But perhaps the worst torture of all, the hostages say, was periodically seeing inter­national naval patrol vessels approach and then retreat, reluctant to risk lives by intervening.

Meanwhile, the ship’s Yemeni, Dubai-based owner – who was rumoured not to have had insurance – had stopped negotiating a ransom with the pirates (if he had ever even started) and abandoned the ship and her crew to their wretched fate.

The crew’s hostage ordeal is one of the longest on record. The average captivity for around 600 seafarers held hostage by Somali pirates in 2012 lasted 11 months. During this time, most were subject to abuse and left wondering if, or when, they would get home to their families, many of whom struggle if ship owners stop hostages’ pay.

Easy pickings

Piracy – as old a profession as seafaring itself – plagues different oceans in different eras, sometimes receding but never defeated. The Somali piracy of recent years has dropped at the same time as piracy off the West African coast is on the rise. Some five per cent of the world’s 1.5 million sailors have fallen victim to pirates since 2008, according to the Oceans Beyond Piracy project.

Skeletal crews on vast ships leave staff overstretched and fatigued – not an effective guard against pirates

Piracy detracts from the appeal of a decent wage and seeing the world – the two stock responses a young cadet will offer when asked why they want to sail. Yet even sightseeing is not guaranteed these days. Technological advances and faster turn-around times in port mean seafarers are most likely to see the inside of a portside sailors’ club, during fleeting and infrequent visits.

Skeletal crews on vast ships leave staff overstretched and fatigued – not an effective guard against pirates – while also making for greater social isolation. Staying sane at sea – while less sensational than the threat of piracy – is an ever-present challenge.

Chuck in extreme weather, high rates of accidents and fatalities and the insecurity of contractual employment, as well as the possibility of being locked up in foreign countries for a pollution-causing accident, and you start to see why the piracy of recent years, while alarming, is by no means the only problem facing seafarers; they have long been recognized as a category in need of special protection, especially with the advent of ‘Flags of Convenience’ (FOC).

Shrugging off the nation-state

Following the 1970s’ oil crisis and a subsequent overabundance of ships in the 1980s, ship owners looked to reduce costs by registering their ships under those foreign states that were unencumbered by strict domestic labour laws.

Liberia and Panama were the earliest so-called ‘flag’ states. They allowed ship owners to take advantage of cheaper labour from Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, such as the Philippines, China, Indonesia and India. Forty years ago, most ships were crewed by nationals of their own flags; today ships usually have foreign flags and mixed-nationality crews. The Iceberg, for example, was owned by a Dubai-based company, flew a Panamanian flag and its crew included Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Yemenis and Ghanaians. There were even two citizens of the new state of South Sudan, whose nation came into being while they were held captive.

Small-fry pirates, just as deadly

When Ayesha Khatun heard news of her son Enamul’s death at the hands of pirates in March 2012, she could not forgive herself: ‘He did not want to go, but I insisted. How could I have done this? I have lost everything now,’ she told news portal Khabar South Asia. Enamul was 24 years old when his boat, with 33 aboard, was attacked off Bangladesh. Enamel’s father, Rashedul Haq, had suffered the same fate 15 years earlier while fishing in the Bay of Bengal.

Artisanal fishers – already on the lowest rung of the social ladder in Bangladesh – are increasingly falling prey to murderous bandits operating along the coastal rivers. While piracy along the Bay of Bengal is nothing new, it has escalated alarmingly in recent years and now covers a 100-kilometre distance offshore.

Khabar South Asia reports that ‘between January 2011 and November 2012, pirates attacked more than 1,000 fishing boats, abducted over 3,000 fishermen, killed 45 and collected more than 100 million taka [$1.28 million] in ransoms from fishery owners in the two coastal towns Chakaria and Maheshkhali alone’.

Fishers now have to pay protection money to numerous pirate gangs just to go about their work, with little protection from the Bangladeshi coastguard and navy: 8 of the navy’s 11 ships are too old to be seaworthy during monsoons.

Coastal fishers contribute 25-35 per cent of the nation’s total catch – a contribution that has fallen by a third in the last fiscal year. Khabar South Asia also notes that a larger, better-equipped and more reliable naval presence is needed, along with increased co-operation between officials.

A state’s duty of care towards its citizens is severed along with the link between the seafarers’ nationality and the ship’s flag. Liberia has no motivation to prioritize the needs of sailors when deciding the terms to which their registered owners are bound, or which treaties to sign.

The deregulation of shipping has created large labour markets for seafarers from the Global South, who are left on the receiving end of a flag-state regime unable to ensure their wellbeing.

Take the Iceberg crew, many of whom have ongoing health problems after nearly three years held hostage. They say they are also owed wages prior to the pirate attack but they have had no success pressing Panama or their employer for help.

Pirates – far from plundering the rich – disproportionately attack FOC ships and take hostage seafarers from poor countries. In 2012, only two per cent of the 589 hostages held captive by Somali pirates were from OECD countries.

A dearth of pastoral care

As the number of mariners from wealthier nations declines, their unions become less inclined to fund essential in-port pastoral care for sailors far from home, including access to telephones and internet. A struggling global network of maritime charities is left to pick up the slack.

In places like the Philippines, which accounts for around a quarter of the world’s seafarers, there is little by way of a welfare state. Instead, it falls to the larger unions to lay on healthcare, housing and financial assistance for their members’ families.

Members of AMOSUP, the Philippines’ largest maritime union, are among the small minority who are covered by a bargaining agreement where owners pay union dues from their salaries as a condition of employment. But with union membership tied to welfare, single-voyage contracts of 6-12 months give little long-term certainty.

Non-unionized seafarers aboard FOC ships fare the worst, particularly those who work on fishing boats. In practical terms, fishers are already the most vulnerable to attack. Sent into pirate-infested waters by unscrupulous employers, trawlers are typically slow, difficult to manoeuvre and have low freeboards. Widespread abuses of workers, including slavery and bonded labour on fishing vessels, also leaves fishers vulnerable.

Blacklist fear

‘Fishing vessels are being arrested every day around the world because of non-compliance with both human and labour rights,’ says Jon Whitlow, Secretary of the International Transport Workers Federation. ‘We believe that the global companies, who supply fish to the world market, have to take more responsibility for the supply chain that they purchase and export from.’

The situation is compounded by the lack of regulation within the industry as fishing vessels are exempt from many of the international conventions that apply to merchant ships.

A state’s duty of care towards its citizens is severed along with the link between the seafarers’ nationality and the ship’s flag

Although seafarers have the right to disembark and return home before their ship transits the dangerous areas of the Indian Ocean – known as the High Risk Area – very few do, usually for fear of being blacklisted.

For those unfortunate enough to fall victim to pirates, company care and compensation vary widely, despite the existence of industry good-practice guides. Many seafaring families are ignorant of the guidelines and no system exists to track their uptake.

Some seafarers welcome the use of armed guards aboard ships as a pirate deterrent. Most flag states allow the use of armed security and, at present, around half the international vessels off Somalia are armed. It has also been argued, however, that the shipping industry’s set of ‘best management practices’, such as rimming decks with barbed wire, serve just as well.

Fair transport

One significant step towards improving life at sea is the consolidation of existing maritime labour legislation into the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), heralded as the ‘Seafarers’ Bill of Rights’. But as Natalie Shaw, Director of Employment Affairs at the International Shipping Federation points out, ‘the challenge will be finding support for seafarers who are aboard a vessel [whose flag state] has not ratified the Convention… There will also be inadequate provision remaining for fishers and also for seafarers aboard dhows, junks and ships of traditional build, none of which are covered.’

The MLC, while significant, offers no quick fix that will revolutionize conditions at sea – hardly surprising given the complex web of jurisdictions in which seafarers operate.

Mariners enable the transportation of 90 per cent of world trade and yet are off the radar to most of the general public who rely on them. This seems at odds with the extent to which consumers are supposedly able to vote with their wallets in support of fair trade production, for example.

Interestingly, some advocacy groups propose expanding the concept of fair trade up the commodity chain. Under a scheme like this, consumers would be able to buy goods certified as ‘Fair Transportation’, flagging a shipping company that protects labour rights and upholds environmental standards.

But for now, seafarers remain, all too often, the unseen victims of both extreme violence in the hands of pirates and day-to-day exploitation in a deregulated labour market.

Olivia Swift is an economic anthropologist who specializes in seafarer welfare.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 465 This feature was published in the September 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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