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Rogue crewing agents a threat to seafarers

Photo: ITF Bed time.jpg
Up to 30 detained crew who had passports retained in a dormitory in Iran.
International Transport Workers Union (ITF) leaders are planning on launching a campaign to root out rogue manning agents who are scamming seafarers. The scams cost the seafarers money and sometimes their health and liberty.

Unlicenced crewing agents working “hand in glove” with licenced agents are fooling seafarers into handing over thousands of dollars to sign onto vessels that don’t exist or are operated by substandard owners. In some cases they are forced to work under appalling conditions and can be enslaved, having their passports confiscated and placed into a labour pool.

One seafarer, Rahul, who had just qualified as a class 4 engineer from Newcastle University in the UK, responded to an advert for seafarers in an Indian maritime magazine.

Rahul paid the agent the equivalent of around $1,900 in up front fees to work for a Chinese owner on a reefer ship. The vessel was operating between China and Thailand and Rahul was told to enter the cargo hold.

Rahul was given substandard protective clothing, torn in three places, to enter the hold which was -30degs C, to perform work for which he was not contracted to do. As a consequence, Rahul tore a shoulder muscle leaving him in excruciating pain.

With no medical room, or even medical supplies on board Rahul was forced to continue working, eventually being allowed to seek medical assistance when the ship returned to China.

Rahul was given medication, which he said had no effect, but then was forced to return to work on board the vessel for another three months, in continual pain, “I was under such emotional stress – no wages and daily work routine in pain – the emotional and physical level of suffering was great,” said Rahul.

All the vessel’s crew refused to rejoin the ship in Thailand after the Chinese crew had assaulted two Indonesian crew members in the port of Samut Sakhon, Thai police arrested the Chinese assailants, with Rahul and other crew members required to remain in Thailand for the duration of the trial.

Eventually repatriated nine months after joining the vessel, Rahul had the ITF and Indian authorities to thank for getting him home. However, it transpired that the vessel owner had paid Rahul’s wages to the agent, some $800 per month, he eventually received just four months in pay, leaving him short-changed by a little under $5,000 in total.

ITF official Steve Trowsdale told Seatrade Maritime News that the ITF and International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) is actively seeking a meeting with Indian authorities, the Director General of Shipping (DGS), along with Indian maritime unions to develop a strategy to combat these rogue agents who operate mainly on the Subcontinent.

Trowsdale is also concerned with the rise in crew that have been duped into joining a ship, only to find the vessel is not in the country when they arrive.

One case saw a cadet assigned to a vessel he was to join in the UAE, but when he arrived, he was told he must go to Iran to meet the vessel. On arrival in the Islamic state his passport was confiscated and he was sent to one of three camps for seafarers.

“The crew, about 30 in each camp, could come and go from the grounds, but they were held until they were needed on a ship,” explained Trowsdale, “He [the cadet] eventually paid $500 to get his passport back and was allowed to go home after nine months, all unpaid.”

Watch video below of conditions in the camp

According to the ITF these crew, mainly Ghanaians, Cameroonians and Indians, were often used for watchkeeping duties, two crew “on a shitty Iranian ship” there to keep it ticking over.

“That isn’t employment, that slave trading and indebted servitude,” said Trowsdale.

India has a booming seafarer market, with many trainees looking for lucrative work on board ships, but they are unaware of the dangers, according to ISWAN.

One former Indian container ship master said that unemployment in India is high and “people sell their land to educate their children so that they do not have to through the hardships that they have endured.”

He added that new sailors are unaware of the Recruitment and Placement Services Licence (RPSL) that all registered agents must have and this leaves them vulnerable.

It was a theme taken up by the international operations manager at ISWAN Chirag Bahri who said that no recognised crewing agent should be asking for money up front.

Bahri said the problem in India is that farmers want to get their families out of poverty and they believe if they send their children to be educated into a seafaring occupation where they can earn many times the wages in India that will help the entire family.

“Desperate parents borrow money or sell assets to raise the cash for their children to have a better life,” said Bahri, “Unscrupulous agents go to those villages and tell them they can earn dollars and make false promises.”

However, Bahri adds that the “registered [RPSL accredited] and non-registered agents are working hand in glove, the non-registered agents need the RPSL agents to assign a ship, so they share the money.”

Captain Daniel Joseph, deputy director of DGS said the government is inundated with complaints from the maritime sector with abandonment and non-RPSL agents a major proportion of the 500-600 complaints they receive a day.

Many of these agents operate online or in the Kolkata and Bihar regions, or more generally around the northeast of India.

Capt Joseph argues: “We are doing our best to give full support to seafarers and ensure seafarers get best possible support.”

DGS is developing a series of awareness campaigns putting out circulars to seafarers and cadets in colleges, helping to enforce the law when an unscrupulous agent is brought to the DGS’ attention.

“This weekend we are holding an ‘open court’,” said Capt Joseph, an online question and answer session for seafarers to seek help from the deputy director himself.

However, he also stressed that it is critical that seafarers come forward and make complaints immediately so that the DGS and its investigative team can do its job and take action.

Capt Joseph adds that the DGS has rescinded many licences and successfully prosecuted unlicenced operators, which it says it lists on its website.

The ITF’s Trowsdale, however, said he has never seen an Indian crewing agency that has lost its licence, “seafarers report incidents to the police, but that has never been seen as a success,” he added.

Unions want government to take far tougher action on the rogue operators and is seeking a meeting with the DGS to develop a joint action plan to stop the illegal agents who are, he says, operating an effective slave trade.

TAGS: Regulation