Forget any romantic notions of life on the ocean wave – most modern-day seafarers are simply ‘prisoners with a salary’
It was only late afternoon, but already dark and stormy, on the Thursday of the week before Christmas 2009, when the cargo freighter Danny FII approached the Lebanese port of Tripoli en route from Uruguay to Syria. She carried 18,000 cattle, 10,000 sheep and 83 humans, including four passengers, and had been converted from a car carrier into a modern-day Noah’s Ark.
Only last year a young South African cadet named Akhona Geveza was found floating in the sea, an hour after reporting that she had been raped by a senior officer. An investigation by South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper interviewed other cadets and found two made pregnant by senior officers; two male cadets raped; and a widespread atmosphere of intimidation. ‘When we arrived,’ one female cadet told the newspaper, ‘we were told that the sea is no-man’s land and that what happens at sea, stays at sea.’
The International Commission on Shipping estimates that thousands of seafarers, working on 10-15 per cent of the world’s ships, ‘work in slave conditions, with minimal safety, long hours for little or no pay, starvation diets, rape and beatings’. All to bring us our Fairtrade coffee and our ethically sourced clothes.
A British Navy Admiral last year accused Britons of ‘sea blindness’; of having no idea what sea life is like. But how can we? Shore and sea lives are nothing alike. You would expect for example that the families of Danny FII’s dead crew would be compensated, because that is what happens in shore life, ideally, where there are checks and balances and courts and redress. But the men of Danny FII lived in a world that is essentially lawless.
When something goes wrong at sea, a seafarer has nowhere to turn. ‘A land-based person would have national jurisdiction,’ says Deirdre Fitzpatrick of the ITF,. ‘I’m in the UK, my problem is here, and I know where to go for help. If you are Filipino, on a Panamanian-flagged ship, travelling from South Africa to the Netherlands, what law is going to govern you? You are a total moving target.’
International, multinational, transnational: this is normal in shipping, an industry whose complexity would impress offshore bankers. Crews of five or more nationalities are standard, and 60 per cent of ships now fly a flag of a country that is not that of their owner. These days, the average ship in British ports is unlikely to have either a British flag or a British crew. The only thing you can predict with certainty about it is that its sailors will be from poor countries, and exhausted. Occasionally, they will also be unpaid, or worse, which is where Tommy Molloy comes in.
An inspector for the ITF, based in Liverpool, Molloy spends his days visiting whichever of the world’s freighters has arrived at the quays of Liverpool and Birkenhead, to see if they pass muster. We meet in New Brighton, old-time seaside resort for Liverpool, now supplanted by Ryanair and short-haul sunshine. His office is on a retirement estate for ex-seafarers run by Nautilus, a seafaring union.
All the old seafarers here are British, and ‘they wouldn’t recognise the industry today’, says Molloy, as we drive at pensioner speed through the lanes. But he hardly ever sees a Briton on the ships that call here, because they cost too much in wages, and expect things like being paid on time, or having the right to be in a union, that shipowners can avoid quite easily and legally by flying a ‘flag of convenience’, a responsibility-avoidance system unique to shipping.
It is common to see ships who are owned by, for example, a Japanese company, flying the flag of Liberia or Panama. This entitles them to operate under a nation state that supplies none of the governance that it should, a practice that makes tracking down bad shipowners near impossible. Flagging out your ship, an Australian maritime union wrote, is like ‘being able to register your car in Bali so you can drive it on Australian roads without having to get the brakes fixed’.
There are decent flag-of-convenience registries, but questionable ones abound. North Korea has a large fleet. When Cambodia-flagged ships got involved in too many sinkings and drug trafficking investigations, the registry office in Singapore was closed and two weeks later reopened as Mongolia’s. The United Nations Law of the Sea specifies that there should be a ‘genuine link’ between the flag-owner and the state. It took years for diplomats to agree on this. They are now spending years deciding what a genuine link should consist of. In practice, when anything goes wrong, the seafarer is on his own.
I drive with Molloy to Birkenhead docks. He has the right to visit ships that have signed an ITF agreement promising to respect certain wage levels and hours of rest. Otherwise he asks politely to visit. Shipping is the only industry that regulates working hours by hours of rest, because it would be impossible to conform to hours of work limits.
On a recent passage I took, conforming to regulations was impossible. In port, crews were working 18 hours a day, because shipping these days is 24 hours, seven days a week. The days of prolonged stays in port are long gone. With containerisation, a ship can be unloaded and loaded and gone in 24 hours. Some of the crew on my ship hadn’t been ashore in months. ‘I’ve been to New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo,’ the chief engineer said, ‘and they all look like my engine room.’
Molloy doesn’t see many decent ships. ‘I deal with the dirty end of the industry,’ he says. The first ship we visit, though, is fine. Hohe Bank is flagged in Antigua, owned by Germans, managed by Britons, built by Chinese, and with an Indonesian crew and Russian officers. Normal, in other words. Molloy hands out ITF magazines in Russian and an Indonesian language, and they are pleased to get them, because it is human contact, which they don’t get much of.
Plenty of seafarers I meet tell me their job is like being ‘at prison with a salary’. Wrong, wrote the Maritime Charities Funding Commission, which found that ‘the provision of leisure, recreation, religious service and communication facilities is better in UK prisons than on many ships’.
The ship ‘house’, where seafarers live, is small but clean. But Molloy gives me a PowerPoint presentation about some other ships he has seen. Mouldy, filthy couches, rotting fruit and meat. I hear complaints that chandlers – suppliers – regularly give ships poor quality food, simply because they can, when a ship is in port for 24 hours. But the crew doesn’t complain here and the paperwork is orderly.
Still, even on the better ships, Molloy can go aboard and be there for days. ‘You’ll find that all the crew have exceeded their contracts. We always try to persuade them to leave but often they don’t want to.’
Non-officers don’t have permanent contracts, so staying at sea longer means more money and less need immediately to look for work. I met Filipinos with four children who had missed every birth and every birthday. It is the price they pay. ‘We call it dollar for homesickness,’ one said.
Many seafarers also find themselves abandoned in a port with no money, no supplies and no way to get home. The abandonment of ships peaks during times of recession, but it happens all the time, usually when an unscrupulous owner has run out of money and disappears.
The worst cases happen overseas, such as that of Arabian Victory, stranded in Dubai in 2002 for 45 days in temperatures of 111F (44C). The Indian and Ukrainian crew didn’t even have water. Appeals to Dubai authorities, the flag state (Belize) and the Indian consulate failed. When the crew decided to sail to India for help, the Iraqi owner tried to arrest them for hijacking.
This case is extreme, but Molloy sees abuse that is alarming for being so routine. He boarded one Greek-owned ship and found that the Filipino crew and officers hadn’t been paid for months. ‘The captain got on the phone to the company and told me $48,000 was being wired immediately. I said, hang on, I haven’t even calculated the total yet, then I did and it was $47,600. They knew exactly what they owed.’
Once, when Molloy got money for the crew, he had a call at 3am from a crew member. ‘He was at Manchester airport on his way home. He said: “I’m the only one who refused to give the money back as soon as we got off the ship, so they kicked me off.”’
But who is going to enforce anything? When a crew is abandoned, the ITF can apply to special maritime courts to have the ship arrested and eventually sold. This can take 12 weeks, and the sailors have no money or food. Welfare organisations such as the Sailors Society, Mission to Seafarers and Stella Maris are often the only solace for exploited seafarers. They are crucial, especially when the crew won’t leave for fear they will never get paid.
Molloy tells of one Sri Lankan who told him: ‘If you send me home, I will cut my throat.’ Like thousands of seafarers, he had coped with not being paid by taking loans from moneylenders, who were threatening to kill his family. Russians and Ukrainians are more likely to stand up for themselves, says Molloy, but the Filipinos will resist longer because of blacklisting, a practice that no one admits to but which is widely used among the crewing agencies in the Philippines.
Roy Paul, who looks after Filipino seafarers for the ITF’s Seafarers Trust, says it is common practice. ‘You’ll have someone who has worked for a ship for four or five years, then makes a complaint against, for example, a racist captain. Suddenly the agency has no ship for him, though it did for four years.’
The conditions that Molloy sees every day would cause outrage ashore. And it’s not just lower ranking crew members who suffer. In South Korea, the Indian captain, Jasprit Chawla, was imprisoned for 18 months after his anchored ship was hit by a runaway barge and leaked oil into the Yellow Sea. He was only released after a protracted campaign. ‘You land a plane at sea and you’re a hero,’ Paul says. ‘You put a ship on land and you’re a criminal.’
Of course, there are many responsible ship owners. As Deirdre Fitzpatrick points out, ‘They know that their most valuable asset is their employees.’ They also know that there is a worldwide shortage of officers (a 33, 000 shortfall at the last count).
Campaigners hope that this shortage will put pressure on the industry to clean up its act. Not much else seems to be working. Even the Fairtrade Foundation is defeated by the complexities and realities of this extraordinary, unique industry. It would be nice, says Fairtrade’s Ian Bretman, to insist on using ships that have signed ITF agreements, or to avoid flags of convenience, but without any way of monitoring, ‘this would be merely an empty gesture. [But] I hope that it will not be too long before we can consider what practical support we would offer trade unions in the maritime and shipping industries so that seafarers can also see the benefits of Fairtrade.’
None of the seafarers I met shares this optimism. In a seafarers’ centre, I ask Menandro, a ship’s cook, if he would send his son to sea. He used to be a civil servant in the Philippines, but the economy collapsed and only the shipping agencies were hiring. He now spends his days bringing us everything we need to survive. Menandro is an educated and articulate man, but his answer is brief. ‘No, no and no. I am doing this so he doesn’t have to. This is no life.’