MLC Week: The disgraceful ABCs of abandonment

For ITF inspectors who climb gangways across Canada daily, there is great joy in any new tool that helps us better defend and enforce the labour rights of the men and women who work aboard ships. This week, we’re taking a look at the Maritime Labour Convention, one of the newest tools in our belt. As we heard yesterday, it’s still a tool-in-progress, and one of the issues that will be amended next is abandonment of crew and vessels.

There are many issues that players in the international shipping industry should be condemned for, but the greatest shame on the shipping industry arises when owners simply walk away from ships and the workers who man them.

Abandonments happen when a shipowner either willfully or through negligence leaves their ship and its crew behind in whatever port or anchorage they might be sitting.

How can an owner can simply walk away from a ship and its crew in a foreign port? Understanding how ship ownership is structured is the key to understanding.

All ships under flags of convenience are registered as single-ship companies. Simply put, they are each a singular business entity. An owner might control a fleet of 50 ships, but every one of them is a single-ship company registered in a flag-of-convenience country like Panama, Malta or Liberia.

If an owner is cutting corners and hiring or chartering a ship out at low rates, or is ignoring maintenance, underpaying or even not paying the crew, and maybe not even paying operational costs like debts to bunker suppliers, then such a shipowner is eventually going to run up against a wall. That wall might be the mountain of credit owed to  suppliers, or bills for repairs, or fees for classification societies certificates and or payment of crew wages. Sometimes a vessel is simply caught by Port State Control inspections like those carried out by Transport Canada, and the list of deficiencies is such that the ship cannot leave port — which means cargo isn’t delivered, charterers sue for non-performance and no one gets paid.

That’s the profile of a substandard shipping operation — and a good portion of the industry is run exactly like that.

When the owner described above runs into trouble, they can walk away from the troubled ship and continue with the management of the other 49 ships in their fleet.

And that leaves the abandoned crew to fend for themselves. By the time that happens, they’ve usually been working without being paid for more than two months already, family at home are financially squeezed (because the “home allotment” part of their salaries hasn’t been deposited in home accounts either), and provisions, supplies, fuel and water on board the ship can be running dangerously low. Even the most basic means of communication get cut off —  things like satellite radio, on board email and personal mobile phone cards.

At this point, the crew are clearly in a desperate situation. Some of them  might already be ill; all of the them are suffering from anxiety and stress-related maladies. And there is no one to pay for medical care while the crew languish on board their ship waiting for someone to help them.

It’s a horrifying situation for Canadians to imagine: picture being locked in your own workplace, a moat around you preventing escape, a foreign country surrounding you, supplies running out, no real way to communicate with your friends or family, who may be on the other side of the world  — all of you and your workmates jailed together, waiting for help that has yet to appear.

If the owner is unwilling to pay the crew and to pay the cost of flying them home,if an owner is  willing to simply leave the ship sit in a foreign port, then somebody has to help pick up the pieces. Most often, crew will contact the ITF for help. Often, the ITF inspector is the first to know about the abandonment — even before creditors, shippers and charterers of the vessel or the flag state where the vessel is registered.

That leaves our inspectors to try and put the puzzle together — to contact the charterers, cargo interests, flag state, classification society, mortgage bank and whatever welfare agencies might help provide the crew with food and medical care while the state of the case is determined and solutions are sought.

Sometimes, parties with a financial interest in the ship might step forward and get the crew paid and the ship moving. But this is quite rare. It happens when the charterer has cargo aboard the vessel and the value of the cargo exceeds the claims of the crew wages and repatriation costs. Sometimes, the bank or fund that holds the mortgage on the ship might step in. Perhaps the valuation of the vessel is strong but the bank can only get its money back if the vessel can be sold for a good price — and they need to the crew to maintain and perhaps enhance the value of the ship. In these cases, the misery can still be long, but some of the worst aspects can be mitigated once a plan is sorted out.

In the worst cases, there is no valuable cargo in the holds, the vessel has little value beyond scrap price and the crew are owed a couple of hundred thousand dollars in wages — and they are 5,000 kilometers from home. These are the difficult cases. Sometimes they are no-hope cases. But in every case, Canada’s ITF inspectors try to make the best of the situation  and get the best deal possible — even if it just means finding a way to get the crew home to their families.

It’s heartbreaking work. To meet these men — and sometimes women — on a ship and know you can offer them little hope about the process, or have to tell them it will be a year before matters will be resolved as winter is setting in and the supply of fuel for the generator is nearly gone and the ship is cold … it’s what ITF inspectors face three or four times every year in Canadian ports, and it is heartbreaking work.

Over the years, we have dealt  dozens of these cases in Canada, as have our brothers and sisters around the ITF world. We will examine some of these cases in greater detail in the following post. For now, we have tried to provide the background that the unfamiliar reader needs in order to understand how those cases work.

Who knows. The next time it might be your organization or union that an ITF inspector is hitting up for money to help buy fuel, food or even a pack of smokes for the poor souls who end up shafted by bastard owners — in your port, ferrying your goods, helping all of us live a life seafarers can only dream of.

Part Two: Real-life stories of crew abandoned in Canada

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