Report: Sailors Treated Like Slaves

Wednesday, March 07, 2001
Tens of thousands of sailors on commercial ships are being treated like slaves and live in fear of being thrown overboard if they complain about exploitation and mistreatment, according a report by an independent industry body.

The report “Ships, Slaves and Competition” found that on 10 to 15 percent of vessels, sailors from developing countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia were being subjected to poor safety conditions, excessive hours, unpaid wages, starvation diets, rapes and beatings.

The report said crews told stories of sailors disappearing after complaining to officers and of being blacklisted if they sought union help to collect unpaid wages. “For many thousands of today’s international seafarers life at sea is modern slavery and their workplace a slave ship,” said Peter Morris, the report’s author and chair of the independent industry group International Commission of Shipping.

“The seafarers who suffer the most are from Indonesia and the Philippines, because they supply the bulk of seafarers, the Philippines 200,000 and Indonesia 80,000,” Morris told Reuters. “In those countries there is so little opportunity to earn an income, they are vulnerable, they are cheated and robbed.” The report, delivered at an APEC shipping conference in Sydney, called on shipping companies, cargo owners and port authorities to stamp out the slave conditions within five years. The report will now go to the 21 member economies of APEC -- the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum -- with the aim of issuing a communique on safer shipping. APEC transport ministers are scheduled to meet in Peru in October. Morris said the U.S. Coastguard had been leading the push to clean up shipping in the Atlantic and northeast Pacific. And he said Europe was now on board following a series of accidents, including an incident in December 1999 when the Maltese-registered tanker Erika sank and spewed thousands of tons of oil France’s west coast. Australian transport officials at the conference said it was hoped Japan, the region’s biggest shipping nation, would take a lead role in pushing for safer shipping in Asia.

Sub-standard ships and working conditions were commercially driven by cargo owners looking for the cheapest rates, said the report, compiled by the commission after global hearings. Morris said cargo owners, such as bulk ore and grain operators, should take responsibility for forcing the slave-like conditions on sailors. “How do we end this exploitation and inhumane treatment of working seafarers? One solution is to name the beneficiaries, shame their actions...,” Morris said. Morris said the cost saving of avoiding international safety standards on ships was around 15 percent of annual operating costs, but added if the industry wiped out such operations, overall shipping costs would fall due to lower insurance rates. — (Reuters)

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