ITF battles for crew wage payments as abandonments soar

‘Tip of the iceberg’: ITF inspectors recover $45m in seafarers’ wages amidst record-high abandonments.

New figures released by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) show that $44,613,880 of seafarers’ owed wages were recovered by the ITF’s network of inspectors across the world last year. Meanwhile, the number of ship abandonments reported more than doubled from 40 in 2019, to 85 in 2020.

‘Owed wages’ are usually pay, bonuses or entitlements that are unpaid by a shipowner or their agent for the work already done by a seafarer.

ITF Inspectorate Coordinator Steve Trowsdale, who leads the ITF’s 134 coordinators, inspectors and contacts, said the owed wages figure was substantial considering how difficult it has been for inspectors to board ships due to Covid-19 restrictions imposed by governments, health and port authorities. Despite restrictions, inspectors supported seafarers with 7,476 cases in 2020, with more than 6,000 vessels boarded.

“Despite there being fewer inspections that we were able to undertake due to Coronavirus social distancing requirements and restrictions, our inspectors actually recovered almost the same amount of owed wages for seafarers as we did last year. The pandemic has proved genuinely difficult for some shipowners who were already running marginally viable operations – some have struggled to pay for more-expensive repatriation flights than what they’re used to get seafarers home, and the new cost of quarantine. But financial challenges faced by companies are no reason to suspend the payment wages or not uphold seafarers’ human rights,” said Trowsdale.

The cost of flights and governments’ travel and transit restrictions introduced to combat the spread of Covid-19 has resulted in a ‘crew change crisis’, which sees seafarers routinely forced to work over-contract on vessels. But the Maritime Labour Convention prevents shipowners from making seafarers work beyond 11 months onboard.

“Being unable to visit vessels in many places, our inspectors and contacts have had to  work remotely and engage more than ever before with seafarers through digital channels like social media. The result has been the ITF holding the line for seafarers and their rights during the pandemic,” said Trowsdale. “Every dollar recovered by the ITF and our inspectors is income that seafarers and their families are counting on. This is money they earned, need and deserve. Seafaring can be hard, challenging work that requires much skill – and months away from your loved ones. The ITF family won’t let employers rip seafarers off if we can stop it.”

​​Trowsdale said that in addition to recovering wages, the ITF had been involved in helping hundreds of seafarers who were abandoned by shipowners, helping seafarers get access to food, water, fuel and flights home. The number of vessels listed on the international abandonment database rose from 34 in 2018, to 40 in 2019, to a record high of 85 in 2020.

High-profile cases include that of Mohammad Aisha, a Syrian seafarer who was made legal guardian of the Bharani-flagged Aman. He was forced to live on the abandoned vessel for four years while Egyptian authorities tried to sell the ship to pay the owners’ debts. When the ITF became involved in December, it took just five months to get Aisha home.

In 2020 the ITF submitted a record number of abandonment cases to the International Labour Organization. The ITF lodged 60 of the 85 the cases which appeared in the ILO abandonment database last year, representing hundreds of seafarers who were owed wages, repatriation flights, or both.

But Trowsdale said that the number of cases officially reported and recorded by the IMO “is just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to instances of abandonment and owed wages. “Abandonment is on the rise, and sadly a reason for that rise has been flag States not standing up to their responsibilities to seafarers. Flag States are supposed to ensure that ships that fly their flags are paying seafarers on time, repatriating them at the end of contracts, and providing the necessities of life,” said Trowsdale.

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