We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Lost at sea


Shipping is big business – the first truly ‘globalized’ business of them all. More than 90 per cent of the volume of world trade is transported by sea. Containers are tracked from the moment they leave a factory in China to the day they are opened in Europe or the US. Coal, iron ore, steel, cars, paper, cement, oil, gas, criss-cross the globe.

Yet there’s scarcely a trace in the public mind of the people who work on board. They receive only brief attention when there is a major incident or widespread marine pollution.

In fact, the ignorance of the media, politicians and the public hides an appalling scene of exploitation, abuse and corruption.

At any one time there are, for example, around 20 ships’ crews simply abandoned somewhere in the world – their ship has broken down, or its owners are bankrupt.

Early last year, the 35-year-old rust bucket Al Manara experienced engine failure and drifted for 18 days before eventually being rescued by the Seychelles Port Authority. The ship had no valid certificates and was infested with rats. The crew of 20 from India, Burma, Somalia, Iraq, Ukraine, Sudan and Ethiopia had not been paid for seven months and had been left without food.

Cases like this underline a common problem for seafarers – they face a much more complex legal position than any land-based worker. Since the Second World War it has been common practice for ships to be registered in states other than that of their owners. Originally devised in the 1930s by ship owners in the US who were trying to avoid alcohol prohibition, the so-called ‘flag of convenience’ system is now widespread, covering more than half of the world fleet.

Many of the countries with the world’s largest registered fleets, such as Panama, Liberia, Cyprus, Belize, the Bahamas and Honduras provide flags of convenience. Even landlocked Bolivia has tried to get in on the act.

However, what is convenient for the ship owner can prove very different for seafarers. To whom can they turn? The flag state? Not very likely, given the money it earns from shipping companies. Their own country? Even if there is some form of representation in the foreign port, it is going to be a long bureaucratic process. The port state? Its main interest will be in collecting port dues and moving the vessel on. The ship owner’s own country of residence? The system is designed to disguise its identity. The crewing agency, which the seafarer may have paid in order to get the job in the first place? A risky strategy, as the seafarer could be blacklisted – and never get another job.

The crew of the Capbreton 1 made a bad decision to stay on board when their ship was sold by a French company to new Nigerian owners. For a year they had received no wages. Then, in July 2003, the ship was arrested in Nigerian waters for not having the required authorization and certificates.

The owners persuaded the crew to stay aboard while the matter was sorted out – but they were then left without regular food, water or fuel. They remained on board because they wanted to secure their back-pay before returning to their homes in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso.

Six months later, they were arrested, thrown in jail and accused of carrying an illegal cargo of oil extracted from vandalized pipelines. They were in prison for 21 months of legal wrangling in the courts, where they were supported by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. They were eventually released in November 2005 with some of their wages and their fares home, but with no compensation or apology for their unjust treatment.

They were not alone. Nine Indian and Ukrainian crew members of the tanker _Arabian Victory_ were stranded in Dubai for 45 days in boiling summer temperatures without food, water or fuel. Repeated calls from the Master of the vessel for fresh supplies fell on deaf ears. The only help came from the Dubai Mission to Seafarers, who provided food and water.

Eventually, the Master gave the owners 48 hours’ notice of his intention to sail to any Indian port, and set off with fuel and provisions supplied by the Mission. On arrival at Mumbai, the vessel was denied entry. The owner had lodged a complaint, maintaining that the crew had hijacked the ship. Only intervention by the International Transport Workers’ Federation in the Kerala High Court enabled the _Arabian Victory_ to dock at Kochi. It took more than a year to get the crew’s wages.

The uniquely vulnerable position of seafarers has long been recognized. They can be at sea for months on end, their place of work also their home. As early as 1920 the International Labour Organization initiated special regulations for seafarers. These cover minimum standards for hours of work, accommodation, catering, access to medical treatment and time ashore. Others cover safety at sea, protection from degrading treatment and the right to association and to join trade unions.

But international instruments are blunt unless enforced. Given the fact that flags of convenience are designed to avoid regulation, ship owners have the perfect refuge. Substandard ships tend to be crewed by inexperienced seafarers who are frequently victims of physical abuse. A report by the International Transport Workers’ Federation recounts how six Chinese fishers jumped ship while in American Samoa and told of systematic beatings and of being denied food and water as punishment. In the Danish port of Rønne, Russian crew members of a Belizian fishing freezer vessel were beaten up by two thugs sent on board by the owners after they complained that they had not been paid for two years.

Even without the threat of violence, the life of a seafarer can be tough. Turnaround times in port have been reduced, as container cranes can discharge a ship in hours, not days. Added security measures following 11 September 2001 have reduced valuable shore leave, particularly in the US. A survey among Filipino seafarers (the largest seafaring labour force) showed that 70 per cent had been denied shore leave in the previous 12 months.

All the repeated attempts at reform over the years have been hampered by a simple fact: while the majority of seafarers come from relatively poor countries, the majority of ship owners come from relatively rich ones. •

*Martin Whitfield* is a freelance writer with extensive knowledge of the shipping industry. Several of the stories in this article feature in _Out of Sight, Out of Mind_, published by the International Transport Workers’ Federation and available online at www.itfglobal.org



The ocean contains more than 90 per cent of Earth’s biomass – ‘the weight of life’. It offers an almost endless range of habitats, from the bounty of the temperate shelves to the near-starvation diet of the ocean floor. Where rivers meet the sea, life abounds in a maze of tidal creeks, mangrove forests and mudflats.

All six ‘kingdoms’ of life – archaea, bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals – exist in profusion in the ocean.

Although it offers 250 times more living space than the continents, less than a quarter of the 1.5 million known species on the planet have so far been found here – though estimates of ‘undiscovered’ ocean species range from a million to fifty million.

The variety and profusion of life on coral reefs are unparalleled. They are home to a greater number of fish species than anywhere else on Earth. They provide countless habitats and opportunities for life to experiment. They have done so for more than half a billion years – and, miraculously, in clear tropical water that is low in nutrients. The sunlit world of plankton near the ocean surface is the single most important source of life. Every year, over two trillion metric tons of plankton grow. They use only solar energy and a small range of nutrients in seawater.

Horseshoe crabs each lay 20,000 eggs every year. A mackerel will lay 100,000 eggs at a time, a haddock as many as 3 million, a cod up to 9 million, an oyster 500 million. Reproduction can be asexual as well as sexual, while some animals, such as slipper limpets, can act as both male and female. Older giant clams release both eggs and sperm.

Billions upon billions of bacteria decompose and recycle organic material. Everywhere there is an unremitting drift or ‘snow’ of this material falling towards the seafloor.

The balance between prey and predator produces an amazing array of strategies, from transparency, armour or poison to streamlined speed and even flight through the air. Every sense is used, including the detection of pressure waves and subtle electrical, magnetic and chemical stimuli.

The open ocean is only sparsely inhabited, particularly in the central tropical gyres, where there is little overturn of water masses. Most of the top predators hunt alone, prepared to range over huge areas in search of food. Some, like tuna, hunt in packs.

Marine mammals, especially dolphins, are extremely sociable. They often live and hunt in large herds, using sophisticated sonar devices to locate prey. Because of their skills, dolphins are often shadowed by sharks and tuna, as well as albatrosses and petrels in the air.

Larger open-ocean fish and crustaceans tend to migrate towards shallow waters for breeding. The green sea turtle travels from the coast of Brazil to the tiny target of Ascension Island 2,330 kilometres away. Humpback whales turn up each spring off Hawaii, performing feats of navigation humans can only match with the help of satellites.

In the air, the Arctic tern migrates from north of the Arctic circle to Antarctica and back again every year, spending over 10 months in continuous daylight. Some 250 bird species are specially adapted for life in and around the ocean.

New Internationalist issue 397 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop