Global Seafaring: Between Profit, Danger and Human Trafficking

Global Seafaring: Between Profit, Danger and Human Trafficking

Maritime is the most globalized sector. An Arab shipowner can own a ship flying the Liberian flag on a route from Asia to Africa – and there are Filipino, Syrian and Ukrainian seamen on board.

If something goes wrong, it’s easy to get lost in this network. The sailors on board suffer. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and missionaries are often the only ones who stand by them. They use their own boats to go to the abandoned ships and use small cranes to hoist at least the essentials, such as food and drink, on board.

A life in prison, length of imprisonment uncertain

When first officer Mohammed Aisha signs on on the “MV Aman”, he doesn’t know that this ship will be his prison for a long time. The container freighter is detained by Egyptian authorities due to safety deficiencies. The shipowner goes into hiding and gives it up. The crew members are allowed to leave, but officer Aisha is declared responsible and must remain on board.

The freighter soon lies 300 meters from the Egyptian shore without diesel, water or electricity. Again and again Aisha has to swim ashore to get food and drinking water. After more than three years, the ITF is able to secure the seafarer’s repatriation home.

For ITF inspector Mohamed Arrachedi, this is everyday life. From Bilbao he fights for the rights of seafarers. In his eyes, it is outrageous that the shipowners often get off scot-free. “The seafarers move the goods of this world. They do their job. This is about human trafficking, about slavery. Those who are really responsible are not punished,” he says.

Ghost ships like this become a prison for the abandoned crew. Human rights activists speak of modern slavery.

Twelve miles off the coast, the Wild West reigns supreme

The ocean is a field of work for 1.5 million seafarers. They deliver clothes, furniture, oil or cement. 90 percent of our goods are transported on cargo ships. In world trade – like almost everywhere else – profit is at stake, and if a ship no longer pays off, then there is an inglorious way out: quietly and quietly give up the ship. For seafarers, that means losing their jobs.

In areas like the Middle East, they are not allowed ashore, they don’t get a visa, they don’t have money for the return flight. The crew has to stay on the ship without provisions, heating oil or water. Unnoticed by the outside world. The families at home are starving because there is no more wages.

“Maritime laws exist; it’s easy to break them at sea,” says Mark Pieth, a legal scholar and anti-corruption expert from Basel. Last year he wrote a book about the violations of law on the oceans. “It’s the opposite of what we have on the road. You know who owns the car and you can follow the trail. That’s not always possible in shipping.” In many cases, the shipowner is nothing more than a shell company in the Marshall Islands, and the flag under which the ship sails is a so-called “flag of convenience”. Behind the “flag of convenience” are countries like Palau, Moldova, Liberia, which don’t care about the issues.

8000 seafarers were abandoned

Abandoned cargo ships are becoming an increasing problem in our globally connected economy. This is confirmed by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The UN special organization takes care of human and labor rights, also on the high seas. She records cases in a database.

In 2017, 55 ships were abandoned, in 2019 there were already 74, and last year even 113. According to the ILO, over 8,000 seafarers have been affected in the last twenty years.

Insurance against abandonment

A 2006 Maritime Labor Convention stipulates that owners must take out what is known as “P&I” insurance. If the owner and the flag state – who has to step in in case of doubt – don’t pay, she should step in and pay the wages of the last four months and the repatriation.

In most cases, that’s what happens. But again and again, according to the experience of the trade unionists, shipowners do not pay any premiums. “It’s a violation of the Maritime Labor Convention,” says ITF inspector Arrachedi, “but there aren’t enough controls. These mechanisms should be changed.”

poison in the sea

Abandoned ships are also an environmental problem. At some point the ghost ships will rust through and sink. Oil, fuel, but also toxins such as asbestos, mercury and paint end up in the ocean.

“No one knows how many ships are at the bottom of the sea,” says Greenpeace’s Till Seidensticker. “As humanity, we have been traveling with steel ships for over a hundred years. Every ship that is built must also be disposed of. But it is expensive to dispose of such ships – especially if they contain toxins.” And so, despite the laws, they remain abandoned at sea. The ocean is big.


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