HRAS key learning around seafarer abandonment

RightShip works closely with charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) to ensure seafarers are protected and receive support that goes beyond minimum compliance. Together we advocate for seafarer health, wellbeing and repatriation programs.  

Unfortunately, we continue to see too many cases of seafarer abandonment, even though this became more important than ever in 2020. Here, we explore this issue in detail, highlighting incidents that should not occur and provide recommendations for preventing such scenarios in the future. 

The issue: seafarer abandonment 

There is still much to be done in terms of developing a human rights policy that applies globally at sea as it would on land. In the maritime sector, we see policies falling short of exemplary standards and we have observed many countries resisting such policies entirely. While there are several legislative documents in place within different regions, we have few programs that can be applied holistically. And, in addition, even where there is legislation in place, incidents of seafarer abandonment can be difficult to track and investigate. Non-compliance remains a serious concern.  

Take for example the United Nations Guiding Principles, which were adopted in 2011. While these were broadly agreed to by governments, businesses, and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), they are open to interpretation. For such policies to be effective, they must be a central component of a company’s ethos and applied at all levels of the supply chain.  

In addition, we also have the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), but again, we can point to examples such as the UAE, where the MLC was not ratified.  

A large part of the problem is the need for remediation when incidents occur. Many companies lack the processes required to address human rights in their due diligence processes, they don’t have suitable partners to support human rights impacts, or their third-party relationships create gaps in knowledge and communication.  

The present lack of unity regarding human rights policies means that legal requirements and prosecution are difficult to implement. Despite this, the Guiding Principles have the potential to improve human rights and prevent seafarer abandonment when used correctly. However, there is still much to be done to overturn resistance to change.  

The proposed new 2020 maritime law may provide stronger direction, but again, this relies on global adoption and implementation. The MLC requires efficient and accountable systems for recruitment and seafarer placement onboard ships, without cost to the seafarer. Yet, we continue to see far too many cases of abandonment, in which the seafarer is not paid wages and is not repatriated as required.  

MLC guidelines also require decent accommodation and recreational facilities, nutritional food, and safe drinking water, in addition to occupational health protection. Seafarer abandonment is defined in the MLC as a case where a ship owner fails to cover the cost of the seafarer’s repatriation, has left the seafarer without support or has failed to pay contractual wages for at least two months.  

Since 2004, the IMO has recorded 366 abandonment cases impacting 4866 seafarers. Of these cases, many were linked to flag states that had not ratified the MLC, including Bahrain, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Republic of Tanzania, and the UAE.  

In December 2018, HRAS published a paper highlighting a case study in which approximately 40 seafarers were abandoned in UAE waters, with considerable outstanding wages, lack of food, water, and medical supplies.  


Implications of seafarer abandonment  

Seafarer abandonment has a significant impact on each person who is in this situation, but it also has monumental flow on effects for their families. Take for example Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan, located on one of the three vessels anchored in the UAE, who reported to the charity that 40-crew members were stranded in the vessels owned by Elite Way Marine Services.  

The three vessels were in an anchorage site at the Port of Sharjah, with the impacted seafarers facing outstanding salaries, lack of supplies and no medical assistance for more than a year.  

In March 2019, the HRAS investigative team met with Mr Prabakaran, the brother in law of Captain Swaminathan, who provided testimony outlining the issue. At this point, he had been on the ship for 25 months, 18 of which had been unpaid.  

“My brother-in-law is very strong and never wanted the family members to get disturbed, so he decided not to communicate the problem and try to manage it himself. When things were really getting out of control, he eventually texted me about the issue,” Mr Prabakaran recalls.  

Captain Swaminathan is the sole income earner for the family and he has an aging mother who requires medical attention along with a wife and an eight-year-old daughter.  

His six-month contract was not extended, but he tried to protect the family, telling him that he did have an extension. After a year with no income, the family took out loans to cover day-to-day expenses, but when they could not repay them, they pledged family jewellery against the loans. This includes their wedding jewellery which was sold to settle the debts.  

In the end, it took more than 18 months for Captain Swaminathan to achieve repatriation, which took an unrelenting mental health toll and impacted the crew’s relationship with their families too.  


Key learnings and best practice results  

Since then, the UAE has reacted to these incidents and made administrative decisions on the Compulsory Insurance Requirements Related to the Shipowners’ Liabilities Towards Sailors in the State of the United Arab Emirates. 

In summary, the decision indicates that shipowners should provide insurance coverage for every seafarer working on a vessel, ensure deportation expenses and basic necessities such as food, healthcare and salaries of up to four month are due in the case of desertion.  

According to Human Rights at Sea, these developments provide a reason to be optimistic, provided the rules are enforced. This bring the UAE in line with the MLC. While there is the possibility of non-compliance, the UAE does now afford protection to seafarers under domestic legislation. Assuming the legislation is complied with, seafarers should receive strong insurance protection in the case of future abandonment cases.  

That said, there is still much to be done to achieve seafarer welfare best practice internationally. RightShip supports ongoing development programs by HRAS, including the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea, which reflects existing law while also exploring practical application through the maritime environment.  

HRAS has also developed the Human Rights at Sea Arbitration website, which is a free platform to support arbitration for victims of human rights abuses.  

Ultimately, however, achieving best practice outcomes for seafarers requires a commitment from all members of our community so that all people working at sea enjoy fundamental human rights. We are still seeing systemic human and basic labour rights abuses far too often and there is much work for our industry to do, to ensure that the people who keep our sector running are protected and able to return home to their family safe and well.