Friday, December 21, 2012

Life on the Ocean Wave: Treating Seafarers Fairly

Guest post by U.S. Coast Guard Captain Melissa Bert; Chief of the Office of Maritime and International Law.

Each year over 100,000 ships move 90 percent of global commerce with the help of 1.2 million seafarers. The United Sates Coast Guard is charged with protecting people on the sea, protecting people from threats delivered by the sea, and protecting the sea itself. We work closely with our sister agencies in government, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the maritime industry, to ensure passengers and goods move safely and securely on the world's oceans, while respecting the marine environment. As sailors ourselves, we also expect fair treatment of seafarers.

The Law of the Sea Convention, IMO conventions and International Labour Organziation instruments all make flag states responsible for upholding maritime standards and responding to marine casualties. Incidents resulting in major loss of life or significant pollution have strengthened these processes, along with flag state accountability. However, the seafarers involved in these incidents, the threat of abandonment remains a very real concern.

Between 2001 and 2010, over 130 ships and 1,600 seafarers were abandoned. In 2009, at the height of the global economic crisis, over 50 vessels were abandoned., leaving over 600 seafarers to fend for themselves. While the circumstances vary, an abandoned seafarer is often stranded far from home, and without means for support or transportation to his or her country.

Abandonment can be the result of a ship owner facing bankruptcy or the arrest of the vessel by creditors. Sometimes, vessels are abandoned as unseaworthy after port state control inspectors detain them. The threat of abandonment is also present in marine casualties and environmental crimes cases, when crew members are needed to provide testimony for investigators. The seafarers support the flag states at great personal peril, because once they provide information injurious to an employer, they risk any future employment in the maritime industry. Even with the potential for whistle blower compensation in a small segment of these cases, seafarers must weigh the benefit of providing important information that will enhance maritime safety, and protect world's oceans, against the possibility of being left destitute and without work.

Moreover, a seafarer risks alienation and physical retaliation when they come forward to assist with the investigations. Unlike individuals that assist with investigations of land-based incidents, seafarers are in the difficult position of providing information about their ship or shipmates. For them, it's not just a matter of providing information about their place of employment, it's an issue of addressing problems with the processes and people they live with, work with, and spend nearly every waking hour with to accomplish the work of the ship.

Many countries have their stories of seafarers being abandoned, and America is not immune to the problem. An environmental criminal prosecution in 1998 in Los Angeles, California, resulted in crewmembers spending weeks in homeless shelters and sleeping in the offices of the Seaman's Church Institute. These crewmembers had done nothing illegal, and yet they were effectively punished for supporting the United States in a pollution investigation.

However, not all vessel owners put seafarers in this position, as the overwhelming majority of companies take responsibility for their people. This should be the standard. For the past several years, the Coast Guard has encouraged policy makers to enact laws to prevent the Los Angeles script from unfolding again while not punishing the responsible leaders in the shipping industry.

Domestically, legislation has been introduced in the Senate annually for the past five years. The bills propose the creation of a fund, the corpus derived from the community service moneys awarded in environmental criminal prosecutions. The fund would not be fed by taxpayers or responsible companies and owners; Instead, the bad actors would bear the costs for housing law abiding seafarers, while they await testifying in American courts.

Internationally, the United States joins Canada, Spain, the Netherlands and France at the IMO, in the introduction of guidelines for seafarer treatment in maritime accidents. I look forward to supporting these efforts when I lead the United States delegation at the IMO Legal Committee meetings in London this coming spring.

Photo credit: Fotolia

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