More mariners have been abandoned by their employers than taken hostage by Somali pirates, according to the Mission to Seafarers. The United Nations has documented cases of 2,379 stranded sailors on 199 ships in the past decade, with many more unreported.
In April, international agencies are scheduled to meet in Geneva to consider requiring companies in the $375 billion shipping industry, which handles about 90 percent of world trade, to carry insurance or a bond to pay for repatriating sailors when they get stranded.
While international conventions recognized sailors’ right to repatriation as early as 1926, that means little to those who find themselves abandoned, said Deirdre Fitzpatrick, executive director of Seafarers’ Rights International, an advocacy center in London.
“The industry is structured in a way that allows seafarers to be abandoned,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview. “That shouldn’t be allowed in this day and age. There is this loophole where a ship owner can walk away and the seafarers are left relying on charity to survive.”
“These are the sort of breaks in the whole chain of the employment relationship and of international responsibility,” said Cleo Doumbia-Henry, director of international labor standards at the UN’s International Labour Organization in Geneva.
Some abandonment cases have turned deadly. The captain of a Ukrainian car carrier stranded in New York Harbor for more than three months in 1999 committed suicide, said Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at the Seamen’s Church Institute in Newark, New Jersey. Last year, a Ukrainian sailor died aboard a dredger abandoned for five months near Mumbai.
Many cases drag on and on. This year the ILO and the International Maritime Organization, another UN agency, will consider a new rule, a decade in the making, that will allow port inspectors to prevent ships from sailing without insurance or a bond to pay for repatriating stranded mariners. But the real issue rests on the non-payment of wages. Without guarantees that payment will be made many seafarers feel compelled to stay with the vessel to force the owners to settle.
In many ways repatriation is a red herring – as so often in life, its all about the money.