Wednesday, December 13, 2006

No port to call home

One of the consequences of globalisation, with corporate ownership often obscured behind multinational holding companies, is a sharp increase in the numbers of seafarers abandoned in foreign ports, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). One such story concerns the Al Manara, a vessel sailing under the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis, which in January 2006 left Somalia loaded with coal for Dubai. An engine failure caused the ship to drift for 18 days until it was towed in by Seychelles port authorities. Certificates expired, food and water supplies ran out and the ship quickly became infested with rats and cockroaches. The cargo owner wasn’t only unwilling to pay towage fees and supplies for the ship – but was also some six months behind in paying wages to the 18 seafarers from Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia and Ukraine. In July 2006, four crew members were still on board, while four had been repatriated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The remaining crew members were provided with subsistence by the Seychelles Port Authority. "The case of the Al Manara is by no means exceptional," says ILO senior maritime expert Jean-Yves Legouas. "Sadly, there are still cases of abandonment."

Since January 2004, the ILO database has registered 40 cases of abandonment of seafarers in ports world-wide, from Algeciras to Adelaide, and from Portland to Piraeus. More than 500 seafarers from all over the world were owed hundreds of thousands of US dollars in wages when the vessels were abandoned. "In the past year, very few, if any, cases have found a solution, in spite of a joint initiative of the director-general of the ILO, together with the Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), who have personally written letters to those member states having a ship abandoned somewhere in the world, flying their flag," says Legouas. 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 various factors, such as the port where it occurs, who owns the ship and the level of response of their consular or diplomatic national representation, seafarers may or may not get speedy and satisfactory redress for their plight. Some owners send a few hundred dollars at irregular intervals. Not enough to survive on, but enough to make abandonment unclear," Legouas adds. "The work of seafarers is an indispensable part of all our lives. As about 90 per cent in tonnage of world trade move by sea, and even more because they are workers who have rights, we have to ensure decent working conditions for all seafarers", Legouas adds. The ILO, a UN body, created the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation with the aim of improving the lot of workers. In February 2004, it released its report, A Fair globalisation: creating opportunities for all. While praising the "productivity capacity" of global capitalism, the report adds: "Seen through the eyes of the vast majority of men and women around the world, globalisation has not met their simple aspiration for decent jobs, livelihoods and a better future for their children." The seafarers of the Al Manara would agree with that.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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