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An ITF inspector calls

27 Jan 2012

"The seafarers on one Russian ship abandoned in Liverpool port literally didn’t have the price of a cup of coffee," Tommy Molloy, ITF inspector

As an International Transport Workers' Federation inspector, Tommy Molloy has dealt with some horrendous cases of seafarers abandoned by their employers, owed thousands of dollars in wages and with no way to get home or even to contact home.

“Probably all kinds of people along the way don’t get paid by a shipowner with financial problems – but the crew is always first, because they are so easily exploited,” he says.

But worse than that, seafarers often face threats and intimidation if they stand up for their rights. In a recent case, the crew received a letter from the manning agent saying that if they did not withdraw their claim for wages owed, they would never work again and the pay they had already received would be heavily taxed.

In another case, Mr Molloy went on board a ship and discovered that the company was keeping a double bookkeeping system. Officially the crew were being paid wages in line with ITF rates. But in reality, they were receiving much lower pay. “They had been cheated for months; they were owed a total of $238,000.

Under ITF insistence and observation, the shipowner and the Philippines crewing agent turned up with the money and paid the seafarers their money – but when Mr Molloy returned to the ship with port police a short while later, no member of the crew could produce their wages. They had ‘voluntarily’ handed it back to the agent.

“You tell people these stories and they almost start crying – they ask how can this possibly happen. But it does. I have had a crew from Ukraine begging me to withdraw their claim because they considered they would otherwise be dead men when they got home.

“Ships bring us all the consumable goods we want. Fair trade practices will apply to the produce they bring – but not to the people actually bringing them. And very rarely are the newspapers interested.”

Quite often, the crew are totally dependent on the ITF and local people, says Mr Molloy. “The seafarers on one Russian ship abandoned in Liverpool port literally didn’t have the price of a cup of coffee. We publicised this and the next thing, people were collecting in Asda, and even the tug boat crew had a collection.”

They were fortunate to get this response. Across the world, he has known of abandoned crews surviving on scraps, eating bugs, selling off bits of the ship or even selling blood so they can buy food.

Deirdre Fitzpatrick, executive director of Seafarers Rights International and an international lawyer, says that when an abandoned ship is arrested and sold, the port is generally top of the list when it comes to the pot of money, with seafarers a poor second. “We have had to negotiate with a port to access less of the money in order to leave some for the seafarers,” she says.

But the truth of the matter is that the process of arresting and selling a vessel takes months. The crew are reluctant to go home without their wages. “So you have a practical problem; taking legal action doesn’t feed them. So you get into the humanitarian response. The fact that so many local communities – welfare organisations, local unions, local people – actually do bring supplies and food to the crew is very refreshing but it is also very precarious for the seafarers, because they have to rely on welfare charity.

“There should be some form of financial scheme so that as soon as a problem arises, insurance kicks in and they are not relying for weeks on charity.”

Future amendments to the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention – itself not yet ratified – promise to deal with abandonment and lay down clear requirements of the shipowner or employer – but, in reality, that is several years away.

“It is a long wait for the seafarers but ultimately it could be a solution,” says Ms Fitzpatrick.

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