The bitter truth from Liverpool

Tommy Molloy (far right, in blue) aboard supporting crew.

The ITFCanada.org is happy to publish the first international submission from our worldwide inspectorate. Today we welcome aboard Tommy Molloy, our Liverpool-based inspector. Tommy started in the ITF Actions Unit at our London headquarters in the 1990s. He later took the sharp case-handling skills he developed in the office into the field with Nautilus, the UK-based trade union representing ships officers and engineers. Tommy has been a close friend of our Canadian ITF inspectors. He comes from a militant trade union background and we have always appreciated his progressive values and perspectives.

In this contribution, Tommy talks candidly about the thing that most frustrates, and sometimes even haunts, longtime ITF inspectors: the sense of futility in pressing for meaningful change. Yes, sometimes certain tools come along, or relationships with certain authorities may prove a catalyst for building industrial leverage against rotten shipowners. But overall, nothing ever really changes. The rotten owners carry on exploiting workers.

With that, we will leave it to Brother Molloy to share his thoughts on the forces that impede progress for some of the world’s most isolated and marginalized workers.

Tommy writes:

Happy New Year from Liverpool! In the words of one of this city’s favourite sons, “Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear”. Don’t hold your breath, though.

I welcome the invitation and opportunity to send a few thoughts to all of my brothers, sisters, comrades, fellow trade unionists and hopefully others in Canada via this ITF Canada Blog.

Why do we work? A few of you might answer by stating that you actually enjoy your job and wouldn’t know what to do without it, that it gives you a sense of purpose and a place in your community or wider society. Some of you might have jobs that provide no such status, but without you the enterprise or organization you work for could not function, all of the cogs in the machine being essential to its functionality and success.

Most, I would argue, would answer by saying, “In order to pay the bills!” 

We sell our labour for a price that, hopefully, allows us and our families to live in some comfort. Generally speaking, we give roughly a third of our time to the organization or enterprise and in return we earn a wage dependent on how highly they value us or on what we can force from them. We work for a roof over our heads, fuel for light and warmth, food, clothing and footwear to move about comfortably, for transportation, for beds to sleep on and furniture to sit in and eat at, for education to develop our knowledge and understanding, for the means to care for our health, for the means of communication, for holidays so we can rest and recharge our batteries, for the means to travel and appreciate our world.

And if we are lucky, once those needs have been satisfied, we work for the accumulation of things (art and artefacts, property, money and so on), which some would say determine our wealth. How many of these headings are fulfilled depends on a number of things —but least of all on how hard you work. And then there is inherited “wealth”, but that’s another story.

Even in advanced economies, many people – either working or unable to secure work – are struggling to maintain the basics. But many of us manage to pay the bills, maybe have a holiday and enjoy some leisure time. Many of us will have recently bought and received gifts for Christmas (From our docks to their decks: Extending a holiday hand) and will consider this an important ritual to maintain, and will feel somehow of less value if we are unable to do so.

So imagine going to work for months on end and not being paid the promised wage in exchange for your time and efforts. Imagine the impact this would have on your life.

Imagine working away from home and being cut off from your family, knowing that your inability to secure the wages owed you means that even the basics in the list above are undermined, and the quality of life of your loved ones severely jeopardized and ultimately eroded. Imagine the mental anguish this would cause you and them, on top of the physical impact.

Unfortunately, this is a common reality for far too many seafarers. 

Many ship operators simply don’t pay wages until they are forced to. They maintain their ships in poor states of safety. They neglect to provide adequate safety equipment or basic personal protection such as boots, gloves, goggles, etc. They often don’t provide adequate food. They keep their crews on board for far longer than contract lengths, knowing that seafarers have no means by which to get themselves home. Most of the shipping industry knows what the outcome will be if they send their ships to countries like the UK and Canada with these conditions. Yet they do. 

If we, The ITF, get involved, then the crew can consider themselves lucky. With the help of the authorities we can force payment, repatriation, get food on board, deal with safety issues and so on. But once the ship leaves our port and our waters, the cycle starts again. The problems sail with the ship.

It’s hard to believe that this is still happening on a regular basis. I started working for the ITF in 1995, and the problems I am dealing with now are the same problems I was dealing with then. 

Consider this: The last available figures (2016) show that ITF Inspectors worldwide recovered almost $40 million US in owed wages for seafarers. That’s an appalling testimony to the way the people who bring us the goods and commodities we either want or need — across the often treacherous seas — are treated.

The following is an example of this type of behaviour from just one company, on many of its vessels, in 2017. It is in the form of a press release put out by my union towards the end of the year. It could be a fictional story from Dickensian times — but unfortunately, it isn’t.

Concern over ‘cycle of abuse’ in Seaways Maritime International fleet

Concerns are being raised about Greek-based ship managers Seaways Maritime International and their continued mistreatment of seafarers employed on the vessels.

The Marshall Islands registered bulk carrier TOBA was detained for a number of weeks in June 2017 following an inspection by Nautilus International/ITF inspector Tommy Molloy in the Port of Liverpool. He was originally alerted by the solicitors acting for a Chinese creditor who subsequently arrested the vessel for an unpaid debt.

More than US$182,000 in unpaid wages was eventually recovered. Crew had exceeded contract lengths the captain having been onboard for 18 months and the food stores were empty when the vessel arrived. Four weeks later, when Mr Molloy was asked to return to the vessel to confirm all outstanding issues had been resolved, wages remained unpaid, crew had still not been repatriated and the food stores were empty again all of which was confirmed by the flag state (Marshall Islands) inspector who arrived on board on the same day. It was another week before the vessel was released.

‘I was advised at that time that those responsible at the Marshall Islands Registry took these repeated deficiencies seriously and would be keeping a close eye on the vessel and the company,’ Mr Molloy said.

However, the situation did not improve and the company continue to operate in the same way as always.

‘I was contacted on 9 October by crew from China informing me they had not been paid since they left Liverpool and at least three had completed their contracts,’ Mr Molloy reports. ‘They had requested repatriation but it hadn’t materialized. One crew member was set to lose his place at college for exams and 1 year of study if he didn’t get home on time at the end of October. The vessel was headed for Australia and ITF Australia wrote to the company advising them to rectify matters before or on arrival. Port State Control was also alerted. The company then changed the port of destination to Adang Bay, Indonesia – ETA 23-24 October – for a cargo of coal which the crew were told was for Argentina. The consequences of this in terms of the further delay to repatriations were not acceptable.’

Not long after this vessel left Liverpool, ITF was contacted on 8 August 2017 to assist the crew of another of the company’s vessels – OLIVIA R (MHL) 9710555 – who were in a similar situation in New Orleans: wages not paid for three to four months and repatriation almost five months overdue. Marshall Islands register was again informed and acknowledged they were aware of the case. It took ITF and their lawyers in New Orleans to recover the wages and secure repatriation.

‘Meanwhile, on 12 October I dealt with another of the company’s vessels BEN NEVIS (MHL) 9670420, also in the Port of Liverpool,’ Mr Molloy adds. ‘They paid crew three to five months outstanding wages (allotments) on the way in to Liverpool; paid all crew US$250 cash when the vessel berthed and after the same superintendent who dealt with TOBA had boarded (this was the first time the crew had received cash in five months); repatriated two crew members with expired contracts before I arrived and had food stores delivered just after arriving. They had not paid September allotments. I had to advise the company they needed to be paid before the vessel departed. A further US$29,000 was secured. The same lawyers who arrested the TOBA for the Chinese creditor advised the company they were about to arrest this vessel for a client in Brazil if the debt was not paid. It was, but once again the company incurred legal costs rather than pay the debt in the first place.’

ITF also assisted the crew of the vessel BEN RINNES (MHL) 9703825 to recover US$217,000 in owed wages in Japan in April 2017; they were not paid again until the company were pressed by ITF in Brazil in July; the crew contacted ITF in October to say they had not been paid since. Mr Molloy felt the authorities needed to step up to stop this cycle continuing. ‘I contacted the Marshall Islands and brought these matters to their attention. They contacted the company and with regards to the TOBA they insisted that all owed wages be paid in Singapore and repatriation arranged from there for those who wished it. I received confirmation from the crew on 29 October that although the vessel did not berth at Singapore the three with expired contracts were disembarked via a launch and were paid and repatriated. They advised that no-one else had received wages.

‘At the same time, I was contacted by the daughter of another crew member on board telling me that her father had not been paid since July and that she was aware that three departing crew members had been paid. She had been to the bank that day to check whether there had been a transfer. I asked her to check again the following day, 30 October. She replied on 1 November to say the bank had still received no money. On 2 November, another crew member contacted me to say wages had still not been received.

‘An inspector representing Marshall Islands boarded the vessel at Munda, India on 9 November and the vessel was detained again. Documents on board appear to show that crew were paid on 6 and 7 October. This is contrary to the information we were getting from crew and families back home. Nonetheless, it seems that for whatever reason all of the crew signed a document to say they had been paid and the vessel was released and allowed to continue on its way. Until the next time. We finally received confirmation from crew and families on 12 November that wages for August and September had been paid.

‘Clearly, this company only do what they are required to do under MLC 2006 and flag state stipulations when they are forced to.’

Mr Molloy’s view is that enough is enough.

‘It now transpires that the OLIVIA R has arrived in Australia and because no wages have been paid since the vessel was detained in New Orleans, it has been detained again by flag and port state. There seems to be a general acceptance that they don’t have to pay their crews monthly as required or repatriate them on time. As long as the vessels can be detained, owed wages and repatriation secured, the vessels can be released to continue on their way in the certain knowledge that the cycle will continue and they will be detained again at some stage in the future. Personally, I don’t think that’s good enough.’

And so it goes.

It has to remain a hope that this type of mistreatment can be eradicated. But that will only happen when authorities such as flag of convenience (FOC) ship registers — flag states that offer their registers to operators/owners with no link to that state whatsoever —decide to get robust with the enforcement of minimum standards. At the moment, it seems as if that amounts to rectifying problems in the short term but taking no action which would prevent the abusers from continuing with the cycle. A good start would be for the flag state to throw an errant company off their shipping register. And for the wider community to become aware of and place a higher value on the role that seafarers play in getting us the goods we want, the stuff we go to work for.

Optimistic, I know. But so was John Lennon.

The captain on one of Molloy’s ships had been aboard an inhuman 18 months — well past his contracted agreement. This was all the food left in the cold storage locker.

 

Molloy found — not for the first time — that food supplies were in an appalling state.

Brother Molloy always boards with optimism — but admits the battle seems endless.

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2 responses to “The bitter truth from Liverpool

  1. Nothing really changes despite the best efforts of Tommy and his fellow inspectors, reminds me of a really old seamans prayer that was part of the Global Mariners exhibition,” All we ask is good food and just reward” I believe that dated back to the 16th Century.
    Fred Potter

    Like

  2. Great job Tommy . You are absolutely right until flag states start throwing out the trash from the garbage will continue to pile up . Can you imagine the world these seafarers would be working in without an ITF inspector it’s hell on Water as it is .

    Like

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