ILO action strengthens legal protections for abandoned seafarers

An important gap in the Maritime Labor Convention has been filled, with an amendment to address the abandonment of seafarers and compensation for death or injury.

The convention had given short shrift to this crucial issue at the time of its adoption eight years ago. Instead, a tripartite committee of government representatives, shipowners and seafarer unions, working through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), was studying the matter all these years.

This committee came up with an amendment in April and the ILO Conference approved it in June. It obliges covered vessels to have financial guarantees on board, similar to the certificates of financial responsibility mandated by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. In essence, it strengthens existing seafarer protections in job contracts and in national and international law, in matters related to abandonment, death or disability due to occupational injury or hazard.

Most standard protection and indemnity (P&I) policies cover crew repatriation. The amendment will expand coverage to unpaid wages, plus food and water, clothing, accommodation, medical and other expenses reasonably attributed to “the (owner’s) act or omission constituting the abandonment.”

Seafarer welfare agencies view the amendment as an important backstop. The Rev. Sinclair Oubre, U.S. head of Apostleship of the Sea and coordinator for the Port Arthur International Seafarers’ Center, has often been on the front line caring for abandoned crew. This work entails “canvassing community support, often raising funds for food and fuel,” he said.

“These situations can go on for months, and tremendously tax the center’s limited resources,” Oubre said. “By expanding the P&I club’s role and setting a time limit on addressing abandonment, the amendment will free seafarer centers to focus on their core duties.”

Oubre, who is a U.S.-flag mariner, debunked the perception that the amendment has no relevance in the U.S. “It is very possible that a U.S. crew of a small vessel may find itself in a foreign port with a catastrophic engine failure and an owner who walks away. Back wages and repatriation back to the U.S. will now be the P&I club’s responsibility,” he said.

Maritime legal consultant Dennis Bryant described the financial guarantee component as “long overdue.” He added: “While P&I clubs cover repatriation costs, not all insurers are in the International Group and may not provide this coverage currently. This amendment would fill that gap.”

The amendment will solidify existing seafarer protections enshrined in the U.S., including a centuries-old “ward of admiralty” status in courthouses and priority for seafarer wages over conventional debt in bankruptcy and repossession proceedings.

Nonetheless, Bryant, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer, sees a “fly in the ointment” few others have noticed. He believes port states’ reluctance to have crewless vessels in or just outside their ports could stymie well-meaning efforts to repatriate abandoned crews, even if the owner or P&I club are ready to pay up.

“I am aware that the U.S. government resists efforts by owners to fly home crews of foreign vessels in U.S. waters if it leaves the vessels crewless,” Bryant said. “There may be ways to solve this, as by having the vessel arrested and sold by the U.S. Marshal, but the issue needs to be considered in the implementation of this new procedure.”

By Professional Mariner Staff