In 2021, the authorities saw ‘an alarming spike’ in cases of ships and crew being abandoned by owners in the wake of the Covid pandemic. The trend continued throughout 2022, which has ended up being the worst year on record
A TOTAL of 1,555 seafarers and 113 ships have been abandoned this year, the highest number of cases since records began.
Following a spike in abandonment cases in the wake of the Covid pandemic in 2021 the number of ships and crew being left without support by owners has continued to rise this year.
According to the joint database maintained by the International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization there were 713 abandonment incidents listed in the database since it was established in 2004, concerning 9,971 seafarers. Of those incidents, 305 cases were resolved, 151 cases were disputed, and 50 cases were inactive.
There are still 207 unresolved cases in the database.
According to Maritime Labour Convention a seafarer is deemed to have been abandoned when a shipowner fails to cover the cost of repatriation and has left the seafarer without the necessary support or has “otherwise unilaterally severed their ties with the seafarer, including failure to pay contractual wages for a period of at least two months”.
While such cases have been relatively infrequent in the past since 2017 the number of cases started to rise dramatically.
From 2011 to 2016, the number of cases per year ranged from 12 to 19. But in 2017 there were 55 cases reported and by 2019 that had risen to 74. The international Maritime Organization described the record breaking leap to 95 cases in the wake of Covid 19 last year as “an alarming spike”, but hopes that the trend would subside along with the pandemic have proven to be overly optimistic.
“The insidious culture of seafarer abandonment is a direct result of a lack of effective enforcement of human and labour rights protections in the industry. There is still little, to no, deterrent effect or transparency,” said David Hammond, the founder and chief executive of the non-governmental organization Human Rights at Sea.
“Without the hard backstop of union, port and flag state inspections and associated ship arrests disrupting violator’s financial liquidity, the rates of abandonment would keep rising without check.”
“The recent draft guidelines tool on crew abandonment are a revisit of what we already know should be embedded in port, coastal and flag States’ existing enforcement activities for upholding human and labour standards under the MLC, national and international instruments.”
Earlier this month a joint IMO/ILPO working group agreed a new set of guidelines to address the significant rise in cases of abandonment being reported.
The guidelines draw on relevant ILO international labour standards, notably the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 , which requires flag states to ensure a financial security system is in place for ships. They also encourage port states to pay particular attention to this financial security during their inspections of foreign ships that visit their ports.
Thew new guidelines, however, are voluntary and non-binding and add little to the existing requirements established under the MLC, 2006. Of the cases reported in 2022, only 15 involved flag States which had not ratified MLC, 2006.
Following the entry into force, on 18 January 2017, of the 2014 amendments to MLC, 2006 concerning financial security in cases of abandonment, 426 abandonment cases have been reported to the joint IMO/ILO database.
According to the Mr Hammond, the new guidelines are weak, not legally-binding, aspirational and entirely unenforceable.
“The fact that in the drafting the word “should” is used 44 times and the word “must” is used only twice positively for seafarer repatriation, and inspection of working and living conditions, says it all,” said Mr Hammond.
“In plain-English, the guidelines are saying to violators either contemplating or undertaking abandonment of human beings, ‘play nice, there are rules and kindly follow them’.”