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Decent work for all seafarers: ILO-IMO prepare new guidelines on death, injury and abandonment

Globalization, complex vessel ownership and flagging, and multinational crewing have made it more pressing than ever to create guidelines for speedy and humane treatment of seafarers caught in unforeseen difficulties. A joint working group of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the ILO will discuss such guidelines on 19-21 September in London.

Article | 16 September 2005

LONDON (ILO Online) - With a canny look to the future, the Queen Victoria Seamen's Rest on London's East India Dock Road has weathered many of the changes in the world of shipping. Founded in 1843, when London's docks were bustling with activity, the "Real Queen Vic" was one of many missions set up to provide seafarers with alternatives to more riotous establishments which once flourished in the area, and to assist them when they were down on their luck.

Changes in shipping and business meant a drop in the numbers of vessels coming up the Thames, and consequently of seafarers with time and money to spend on shore. The Queen Victoria became home for retired and unemployed seafarers of all faiths from all over the globe. Today, as London's docklands undergo change and re-development, so is the Queen Victoria.

From this October, the Queen Victoria will provide seafarers working near Silvertown and Barking with a chance to spend their brief time onshore in pleasant surroundings with access to the internet, cheap telephone cards to call home, pool tables, DVDs to watch, and probably most important of all a chance to talk: to seek advice and support. Although facilities exist in Tilbury docks, when traffic is heavy they are effectively out of reach to seafarers with only a few hours' shore leave.

Around the globe, organisations such as the Queen Victoria, run by different faiths and charitable foundations as well as trade unions, are still an important welfare resource for the globe's estimated 1.25 million seafarers. Work remains hazardous, and the dangers are not only at sea. As yet there are no globally accepted and standardized ways of handling the hardships that seafarers and their families can face when their ships are abandoned by owners, or when death and injury curtail income.

Abandonment, injury and death of seafarers

Difficulties arise in resolving cases of abandonment and compensation claims for injury and death because it is not unusual for a vessel to be owned by nationals from one country, be registered under another flag, and be crewed by several other nationalities. Depending on the level of abandonment, where it occurs, who owns their ship and which national law prevails, seafarers may or may not get speedy and satisfactory redress for their plight.

Reaching a definition of what constitutes abandonment is one of the issues the joint ILO-IMO working party has addressed. Abandonment can cover a period where a ship is left without orders for a timescale running from 48 hours upwards. In some cases it is unclear exactly when a ship and crew can be considered abandoned, as contradictory orders can come from the company. For example promises of payment, food and supplies may be made but not honoured, thus clouding the moment when the abandonment occurs.

Sadly, there are still all too many cases of abandonment. Although in percentage terms these may be considered minor in relation to world shipping, they are still painful and long drawn experiences for the seafarers involved. In the last 12 months for example there have been 10 cases at one Gulf port. Three were on Panama flagged vessels, owned by a local company. A total of 42 seafarers from Russia, Ethiopia and India were owed a total of US$325,000 in wages corresponding to 18 months back pay when the vessels were abandoned.

The local Mission to Seafarers, acting on the crew's behalf, confiscated the vessels and auctioned them at court, repatriating the crew and achieved a 75 per cent settlement of wages in action sponsored by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). Another case saw a crew from Pakistan, Iraq and India languishing for more than three years while ownership of the ship they served on was contested between joint owners of different nationalities. When ownership was allocated by the courts to one party, the crew received only a quarter of their claim from the charity fund of the port.

Problems occur in ports all over the world: in Birkenhead, UK, last year the local Mission to Seafarers assisted eight Russian crew on a 30 year old tanker who had received no wages for some time and were under pressure from a Colombian master to sail the vessel to South America with a promise, but no guarantee, of payment or of being repatriated to their homes. With assistance from the ITF they were repatriated and a new crew appointed.

ILO-IMO guidelines in the making

Guidelines for resolution of claims for death, personal injury and abandonment were drawn up in 2001 by the ILO and the IMO and since then comments from shipowners, trade unions and governments have further refined the requirements for an internationally acceptable method of resolving these complex cases.

These guidelines will be welcomed by many. According to the chaplain of Durban port Reverend Des Vaubell, guidelines are imperative: "No matter how much we would want everybody to be fair and do what is right, there will always be the unscrupulous company that will try and cheat, whether it be on wages, or the seaworthiness of the vessel, or even with the supplies of food. If there are guidelines or even legislation that will help the seafarer, then, that will assist us so that when we find such cases action can be taken."

One positive outcome from the IMO/ILO working party to date is the creation of a database, hosted by the ILO, of reported incidents of abandonment of seafarers, though precise detail on how it will be compiled and operated are still to be finalized. How will information appear, and at what point cases are considered resolved are issues still under discussion.

Another difficulty once abandonment is established and recorded is determining who will be responsible financially, since neither banks nor insurers appear willing to cover these costs.

In dealing with injury or death, the intricacies of nationality of seafarers and owners also arise. Some suggest that national laws or regulations may limit the liability of the shipowner to defray the expense of medical care and board and lodging for a specified time. The question remains how cases can be dealt with in countries without adequate medical facilities - let alone social security systems - and how this would impact on the hiring of crews from countries with more or less stringent regulations.

The ILO is already working on the consolidation of its maritime conventions to ensure greater protection for seafarers, and a more level playing field in the industry. It is striving to ensure that this is achieved in a form that is relevant to this rapidly changing and globalized sector. It is also conscious that where improved conditions for seafarers are introduced, shipowners and governments interested in providing decent conditions of work should not have to bear an unequal burden in ensuring such protection.

Resolving issues around claims for death, injury and abandonment will contribute to the new standard's aim of achieving greater consistency and general applicability in labour conditions for the men and women whose work is an indispensable part of all our lives. As increasing volumes of world trade move by sea (upwards of 95 per cent in some areas) it becomes ever more important to ensure decent working conditions for all seafarers, and these standards are an attempt to address the situation.

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