The abandonment of seafarers is a growing problem in merchant shipping. Vessel owners who no longer see the possibility of gaining a profit from completing a voyage, and whose ships may need repairs or expensive maintenance, are taking the decision to abandon them.
These orphaned ships cannot dock, as they are unable to pay docking fees, their seafarers are unable to claim back wages and often are scared of leaving the ship as any remaining claim they have on their pay may evaporate. The ships themselves, slowly deteriorating in international waters, present a potential environmental hazard.
The question is; is this an anomaly or indicative of a wider problem in the organisation of the new millennial economy?
Abandoning merchant seafarers
In 2022 the abandonment of seafarers hit a record level with 103 ships currently abandoned, and 1682 merchant sailors affected.
Under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC-2006), abandonment has taken place when the ship’s owner is unable (or unwilling) to pay for the crew’s repatriation and/or has not paid wages for two months, as well as leaving the crew without maintenance and support onboard the vessel.
Seafarers may have no food or water and lack vital supplies, including medicines. If the ship is not in dock and the owners will not pay port fees, the crew will often also be unable to reach shore to contact anyone regarding their plight.
When a ship, due to maintenance or repairs required, or because of its age, is worth less than the wages owed to its crew and other debtors related to its operation, unscrupulous owners are abandoning their vessels in increasing numbers.
Without funds available the vessel is unable to dock, refuel or resupply the crew, and may well be left to deteriorate in international waters becoming a potential (or real) environmental hazard. Although the MLC requires ships to carry abandonment insurance, this remains guidance rather than a requirement. Indeed, there is some evidence that the emphasis on insurance, has led to a perverse incentive to abandon on the basis that associated costs can then be covered by insurers.
For seafarers, the insurance model has left many waiting for claims to be processed and without support while needing to stay on the vessel to ensure they are eligible for any subsequent settlement. The lack of any more stringent rules on the treatment of seafarers is seen as the key problem, with insurance often partial or non-operative.
As David Hammond of the NGO Human Rights at Sea, argues, 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”. It remains too easy to abandon seafarers with impunity when they start to become inconvenient or costly.
Although this may look like the sort of problem that stems from the character of international law as consensual and lacking formal enforcement mechanisms, a recent UK case demonstrates even when there are formal laws in place, seafarers are still vulnerable to harsh treatment by their employers.
In March 2022, P & O Ferries summarily sacked 800 staff (including seafarers) without consultation or a notice period. There were outraged pronouncements from politicians at the time, but six months later the UK Insolvency Service decided not to prosecute the firm, despite its public admission that it had calculated it would be cheaper to break the law than continue to employ its staff at the then prevailing rates.
While the legal context is different, the underlying attitude to seafarers as workers (with assumed rights) looks very similar. Laws without effective enforcement are little better than an international convention’s guidance.
Precarious work on shore
The problems confronting merchant seafarers are thankfully not widespread, although for those affected, they remain a personal disaster from which it is difficult to escape. However, it would be complacent to see no connection between the vulnerability of seafarers and the plight of workers on land. For workers in the UK and elsewhere, the rise of zero-hours contracting and insecure work leaves then in a similarly precarious position as merchant seafarers.
What connects the abandonment of seafarers and the (so-called) gig economy is the often successful attempts by companies to shrug off responsibilities for the well-being of those who work for them.
This may be Uber’s attempt to treat their drivers as self-employed, ultimately unsuccessful or an earlier, and again unsuccessful, attempt by Hermes Couriers (now Evri) to treat their delivery drivers as independent contractors. However, the settlement of each of these cases was confined to the companies involved.
There has been no general recalibration of gig economy working conditions, leaving many workers with few legal protections. Although a new union, the Independent Workers of Great Britain has had some notable successes in bringing pressure to bear on a few employers, too many workers remain in precarious employment in the UK.
This disregard for the continued wellbeing and security of workers is the triumph of a form of management that sees the worker not as a resource, or a partner in the enterprise, but rather as a cost which needs to be minimised. For managers this means the immediate costs of labour need to be reduced, and any future commitments, that create financial liabilities, should also be minimised.
The logic behind seafarer abandonment also lies behind a range of issues from the withdrawal of companies’ pension commitments, to a lack of interest in training (investment in staff).
The need for regulation in the labour market
These problems are not new, although the terminology often is. Much of the labour relations of the new millennium look very like (or are approaching) the forms of relationship between employer and employee that patterned 19th century capitalism.
Many lessons were subsequently learnt about the lack of economic sustainability produced by workers’ insecurity, which led to the development and expansion of labour market regulation across the world. The protection and stability offered to workers is often seen as one of the key elements in the success of post-war economies from the 1950s-1970s.
What has been striking about the last 20 or 30 years has been the retreat from an economic settlement that recognised the rights of workers to a stable employment relationship, often guarded by collective action or organisation via labour unions. The breakdown of this consensus, leading to the widespread attack on union power and influence, as well as the legislative weakening of labour market regulations have left workers more exposed to exploitative employers across many sectors.
To be sure, not all employers take the low road and, while growing, the problem of abandonment does not affect the majority of seafarers (whatever other issues there may be in the merchant marine). It is however exemplary of this more deep-seated problem in contemporary capitalism. While seafarer abandonment may be an extreme case, it is different from gig economy exploitation more in its degree than in its underlying logic.
So, what the growing problem of seafarer abandonment reveals is that we would be complacent to think that workers can be safe under a system that allows employers to conduct labour relations with no limiting regulations in place, or under laws that are not fully enforced.
Workers on land may not yet be as exposed as seafarers to abandonment, but neither should we ignore the trend of the last decades to remove safeguards from employment. We are not all seafarers yet, but the direction of travel in employment relations points towards their plight, not away from it.
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