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The scandal of paying for a job at sea

Photo: moto moto sc - Unsplash Crew on vessel
Despite being outlawed by Maritime Labour Convention many seafarers continue to pay illegal employment fees to crewing agents to secure work onboard ships. Seatrade Maritime News columnist Michael Grey investigates.

Nobody alive today will remember the old crimps, a breed of dockside lowlife that used to serve as a sort of manning agency for ships that were short of a crew. You probably need to read Jack London, or tales of the Californian “Barbary Coast”, to obtain a full flavour of their loathsome behaviour, as they robbed incoming seamen of their wages, plied them with drink or drugs and delivered them, for a useful fee, to the outbound ships. Thank goodness we live in a more enlightened age and that this is just history.

Or is it? The dubious practices of some crewing agents in charging seafarers for their employment has surfaced now and again, over the years. Typically operating in places of few employment prospects, where people would be desperate for a job – any job – these agents have occasionally been exposed when their practices have occasionally emerged. The Maritime Labour Convention 2006, described as the “Third Pillar” of the modern maritime world was supposed to outlaw such practices of these modern-day crimps, once and for all.

Indeed, the MLC’s Regulation 1-4, specifically requires that “no fees or other charges for seafarer recruitment or placement or for providing employment to seafarers are borne directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by the seafarer….”. That surely is clear enough, with no scope for any imaginative interpretation.

So, it is quite disturbing to read that the Mission to Seafarers, along with Liverpool’s John Moore’s University has been discovering from research among seafarers that illegal employment fees are still being demanded, in direct contravention of the MLC’s regulation. They are disguised as “service charges, agency fees or registration fees” or sometimes unashamedly appearing as a straight bribe, and are, according to the 200 seafarers who supplied the researchers with data, being demanded by some crewing agents appointed by an owner, or individuals with links to that agent, sometimes even an employee of the shipping company itself.

It appears that the sums being demanded are not insubstantial, with US$1,872 an average and the range being anything from $50-100 to $7,500. It is suggested that Indian citizens and those from Myanmar and the Philippines are the most likely to be stung in this way. The crewing agents involved in such practices, who will be fully aware that they are dealing with people who probably have little or no alternative employment prospects, have also been accused of unlawfully retaining crew members’ documents against these illegal payments being made.

Their clients, better described as victims, are also, almost by definition, very unlikely to make any official complaints, lest they become blacklisted (a practice also prohibited specifically by the Convention). So, it is very welcome research that has shone a light on these practices. Hopefully, the Indian authorities might be suitably alerted, while the new reformist Philippine maritime regulators might be anxious to show their mettle in this respect.

These things matter, particularly as the shipping industry comes to grips with the potential of some very real labour shortages in the medium term. As always there are good employers, sensitive to the sentiments of the workforce who have turned their backs on the casual labour model that was once the industry norm. They are moving to offer good long-term employment prospects, with a package that can be defined in all respects as “decent”.

But there are still plenty of maritime employers whose notion of a long-term manpower policy is to try and find a Second Mate for a ship in Hong Kong next Tuesday. They count on there being some hitherto untapped source of unemployed and sufficiently desperate people who will be prepared to work for what little they can get away with offering. It is unlikely that they will ask too many questions of crewing agents.

It is why the MLC needs to be treated as a “living” document, regularly reviewed and properly policed, by competent regulators, wherever seafarers are to be found. There is no place for the crimps in a modern, forward looking shipping industry.