Charting a course away from modern day slavery

Some operating practices see shipping edge uncomfortably close to forced labour issues

By Felicity Landon

Modern slavery in shipping – a hidden problem; a growing problem; or less of a problem thanks to outside pressures? The International Labour Organization (ILO) sets out 11 indicators of forced labour. The Anti-Slavery International organisation says we must be aware of the “continuum of exploitation” – because issues can escalate. However, when it comes to identifying modern slavery on board ships, the nature of life at sea can blur the edges of any definition.

For example, the ILO indicators include restriction of movement, isolation and excessive overtime – factors that are hard to call out when a seafarer is in the middle of their contract in the middle of the ocean.

Having said that, there are plenty of other indicators to consider: abuse of vulnerability, deception, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, debt bondage, and abusive working and living conditions.

Eloise Savill, private sector adviser in Anti-Slavery International’s business and human rights team, engages daily with businesses to identify where the risk is in their global supply chains.

“We have known for a while that there are risks in shipping,” she says. “It is clear there is quite a high risk because of the isolated nature of the job, with maybe limited connectivity, which means people might find it difficult to communicate and to raise grievances and might be dependent on their employer for that communication.”

Because shipping is not customer facing, seafarers are not readily visible, especially for businesses looking at the entire value chain. Increasingly complex supply chains mean that companies are often not aware of or looking for the risk.

“We know there are really long and arduous shifts and seafarers are not able to leave ships for a very long time, which really increases their vulnerability to exploitation,” Savill says. “And ships operating under a flag of convenience or in an area which hasn’t ratified the Maritime Labour Convention may not have the same entitlement to decent work and living conditions.”

Key areas relating to seafarers come up repeatedly, says Savill, and one of these is around recruitment fees. “These can lead to debt bondage. This happens when another person pays often quite a large sum to secure a job and then the seafarer has to pay off that debt, which might be increasing in size, and if there are any delays in payment, it keeps increasing, and the worker is effectively trapped.

“We know that a large number of seafarers are paying money to secure jobs. We really emphasise that employers should bear the whole cost of recruitment and no worker should pay a fee for employment.”

She emphasises also the importance of seafarers having a contract that they understand, before starting employment. “There are a lot of issues of people being given a contract in a language they don’t understand, or even blank contracts to sign. It is really important to know what they are signing, and to keep a copy.”

Forced labour indicators

The crew change crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic saw seafarers on board for up to two years. This was obviously a restriction of freedom of movement and a case of people being forced to work a lot longer. But putting that to one side as a specific issue, Savill says seafarers are often having to overwork. “There are quite commonly staff shortages, or ships might have minimum manning levels so there is a lot more to do. People doing a lot more overtime is another ILO forced labour indicator. We hear a lot about the lack of shore leave, too.”

Anti-Slavery International has also heard about some employers pressuring seafarers to extend their contracts, fearing that they will be blocked from future employment if they complain.

“From our position, everyone deserves to work in a safe environment and to be paid, with fair conditions and the ability to change jobs if they wish and without fear of reprisals,” says Savill.

The ILO forced labour indicators were put together with a ‘fixed’ place in mind, so it is always challenging deciding how it applies to shipping and – even more so – in fishing, says Brandt Wagner, head of the ILO’s transport and maritime unit, sectoral policies department.

“Restriction of movement, isolation – how do you take these indicators and make them more appropriate for that sector?”

The ILO’s latest research estimated that a minimum of 120,000 fishers were trapped in forced labour conditions on board fishing vessels in 2021, he says. “A lot of it starts with the way people are recruited – that is often the start of forced labour.”

There is no suggestion that forced labour/modern slavery is on the same scale in commercial shipping, but there are issues here too. Much of it has come out of two specific situations: the pandemic and cases of abandonment of seafarers.

“It is a sensitive point in the industry because in many cases, as in the pandemic, the problems were not necessarily due to action by the shipowner, but because of action by States or governments. When we had hundreds of thousands of seafarers not able to leave their vessels during Covid-19, the problem was due to the actions by States to control the pandemic.” So, when this came up at the ILO, it was seen by many as forced labour caused by government action.

While most of the States had ratified the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), it was often not appreciated that this obligation applied to all departments or ministries of government, not just the labour ministry or maritime authority, he says.

“We don’t want this to happen again, and we have been working to try to deal with this, ready for the next public health emergency. The ILO has been working with the IMO, World Health Organization, International Chamber of Shipping, ITF and others to make clear, for example, that ministries of health cannot override the rights of seafarers under the MLC. “We are putting mechanisms in place to address this earlier in the case of another such emergency.”

Abandonment issues

Abandonment brings a new set of challenges. ILO statistics show a dramatic increase in cases. The numbers were around 12-19 in 2011-16, when many were not reported. But following the MLC amendments, the number of abandonments reported increased to 40 in 2019; 85 in 2020; 95 in 2021; and 119 cases in 2022.

“Why is this increasing? The MLC sets out very clearly what abandonment is, including seafarers not being paid for two months or more. People are looking at this seriously. The problem we have in some places is that the shipowner disappears for whatever reason, not paying the seafarers; the ship is in port, insurers are contacted to cover repatriation and the seafarers have their plane tickets booked and paid for.

“But then the authority or harbour master in the port will say ‘you cannot leave the ship because we need someone on board to maintain the vessel’. So that has been another issue related to the slavery situation.”

The first meeting of the joint ILO-IMO tripartite working group took place in December 2022 to develop new guidelines on dealing with seafarer abandonment cases. Wagner says: “The port state should, at a minimum, facilitate and not refuse expeditious repatriation of seafarers, as well as their replacement on board using local custodians/guardians as necessary. This was designed to get the seafarers off the ship.”

However, there have been cases where this brought its own complications: “They brought in a replacement group, and they walked into the same situation. There is a provision in the new guidelines to address that as well. We think that these guidelines will be helpful, too, in addressing the situation of modern slavery.”

What should seafarers do if they are enduring conditions of modern slavery? Brand points to the complaints procedure under the MLC, and says seafarers should reach out to ITF inspectors, welfare organisations or the IMO’s Seafarers’ Crisis Action Team for support.

“Internet connectivity makes it easier to reach out to someone onshore,” he says. “We keep making improvement by improvement. A lot of it is about information for seafarers before they even go to sea. Seafarers must be informed of their rights relating to recruitment. We are always looking at improving the knowledge of seafarers.”

ESG to address supply chain risks

While modern slavery in shipping has been a hidden problem, there are signs that this could change, especially as environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting becomes a requirement, says Eloise Savill at Anti-Slavery International. “Companies are starting to think about their entire value chain and that is something we are really encouraging business to do. At present there is nowhere near enough visibility and transparency around these parts of the supply chain and as a result, many companies are not developing due diligence processes to address the risk,” she says.

Anti-Slavery International is calling for stronger corporate accountability laws within the EU and UK, which would hold companies liable for failing to prevent harm in their operations and their value chain.

“It would make sure that companies are held accountable if they fail to look across their entire value chain,” says Savill. “We are also looking for forced labour import controls, so that imported goods could be stopped if they were made in part or full by forced labour. We would be looking for that to extend to the entire labour chain for those goods. Hopefully this would lead to increased pressure and awareness of the issue and more response.”

Melbourne-based Infrabuild has embedded a modern slavery clause in its contracts, says Merwin Faria, raw materials & commodities sourcing manager. The company maps the entire supply chain for its raw materials, from the source to the destination, i.e. when the product is received.

“For this not to be a tick-box exercise, we look at the country risk – i.e. sourcing country and how labour intensive the industry is. As far as shipping is concerned, it would be considered a labour-intensive industry. So, we would look at doing an audit on the company and the vessel to see the working conditions and living space, and have interviews with some of the personnel.

“Normally, there would be surprise visits – but in the case of shipping this is not possible, as we would need to get permissions from different authorities. Therefore, reliance would be on the shipping companies and their personnel. It would be difficult to know for sure there is no modern slavery on board vessels.”

Faria says warning signs could be turnover of staff or work not done efficiently. He believes that modern slavery on ships is a hidden problem, “but there is a lot of awareness and companies are concerned about their brand and reputation. So, it becomes a reputation risk if the problem is not taken care of.”

Are there any patterns he would point to? “I would look at developing countries. There is always a wage gap between developed and developing countries, even though they perform the same work. In my past experience, I noted that the Bulgarians employed on tankers in the Middle East were paid much less than their UK counterparts. The UK personnel also had extra leave compared to the Bulgarians.”

Digging deep

One of Anti-Slavery International’s corporate partners, the fashion retailer TFG London, took up the issues during the pandemic. “They recognised there was this large risk within their supply chain, but they had very low levels of visibility and they were concerned about the human rights risks for seafarers,” says Savill. “They did a large piece of work to map the maritime logistics supply chain and worked with the ITF to assess whether these ships had collective bargaining agreements and guaranteed minimum labour rights. This is a good example of a business that has really looked to address the issues and I would encourage others to do the same. There are a lot of shared and overlapping supply chains, and collaboration would be really effective.”

As for the seafarers, Savill says a key recommendation is for workers to join a union that can represent their rights and provide somewhere to raise issues online. People are often very fearful to raise grievances and it might be difficult for an inspector to see what’s actually happening, she said.

“We encourage businesses to ensure there is a whistleblowing line that is anonymous, confidential and secure, which seafarers can use to raise grievances and get appropriate remediation. They should know what rights they are entitled to. We talk about the continuum of exploitation. It is crucial to make sure issues are picked up and addressed, to prevent them escalating.”