Your Saturday Listen: Guilty until proven innocent

A working life at sea can be tough for all the reasons our inspectors assist with daily: poor food and living and working conditions, being cheated of pay or denied medical care. Today, we address criminalization, a grim and growing risk for seafarers.

We’re guessing that most of our readers consider human rights sacrosanct and “fairness” a kind of right in itself. In the seafarer’s working world, they aren’t. And that’s for a number of reasons. Seafarers may be foreign nationals, and after an incident where a seafarer might be a witness or defendant, they’re often deemed a flight risk or unlikely to appear at a subsequent trial. So they’re treated differently — less fairly — than nationals, and are often discriminated against. They might have the continued support of their employers, but if they are not released along with the ship, they may find themselves friendless in a strange land, facing charges that are incomprehensible to them under a wholly alien system of justice, with defence counsel unfamiliar with the technical nuances of a maritime scene. Language and the lack of adequate translation facilities can pose a serious handicap.

As many in the shipping industry know, ships officers and crew are often under-supported by the shipowners themselves and while they decry the practice of criminalization of seafarers, it is often with crocodile tears. Owners and ship managers themselves could do so much more, for example, in areas of fatigue or support for engine room crew by regularly and legally pumping ashore oily water waste and other slops. Lax support forces crew to manage within their own means — and this often has dire results, leaving the seafarers in peril.

So while many politely dance around this issue in maritime forums, we point back to owners and managers themselves to reduce risk to their crew.

The issue is highlighted in this week’s short video, recently commissioned by the ITF and released by the Seafarers’ Rights International.

The “Criminalization of Seafarers” explores several of the recent high-profile prosecutions of masters and crew that followed maritime casualties.

For seafarers, there is information on what they can expect when they are detained by public authorities following a maritime accident, and where they might get support and advice. For the regulatory-minded, we would note that it deals with the Guidelines on Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident, jointly adopted by the IMO and the ILO in 2006.

It’s an important issue for all of us in the labour movement.

In the words of Deirdre Fitzpatrick, executive director of SRI: “Despite the advances in safety in the industry, maritime casualties continue to happen — and the consequences for seafarers are dire: their lives, liberty and professional certificates all being put at grave risk.”

Imagine facing that in your own working life: the risk that you might be slapped with criminal charges just because of the nature of the work you do. Seafaring is transnational by nature. As workers sail from port to port, they’re subject to the entire range of criminal laws of those port states. They can’t know — and are unlikely to have been warned — about local criminal laws, and are routinely at risk of committing an offence without any awareness or intention to do so. What’s worse, in recent years, legal developments at international, regional and national levels have criminalized a number of previously lawful seafaring activities and created a blame culture, particularly in relation to environmental incidents such as oil pollution.

We’ll have more on Canada’s role in all this in a future post.

Before closing, we’ll add a final piece to this messy puzzle. The toll that all this takes on seafarers is just what you’d imagine. During 2011 and 2012, SRI surveyed more than 3,000 seafarers to find out from the workers themselves about their experiences: if they had faced criminal charges, been witnesses in criminal prosecutions, or if they knew of colleagues who had faced criminal charges; and secondly, their views and suggestions on the problem.

The findings raise a number of significant issues. If seafarers commit criminal offences, then they deserve to be punished. But what the SRI survey highlights is the frequent lack of due process for those who face criminal charges. Seafarers complaining of unfair treatment, intimidation and a lack of legal representation and interpretation services. They say they won’t cooperate with accident investigations and casualty inquiries for fear they will end up on the wrong side of the law just by trying to be helpful. And they have clear recommendations on what is needed to improve the situation.

You can read a copy of the survey results here.



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