How increasing awareness of maltreatment of seafarers can help to tackle the issue
By Eliza Ader
It was a late August afternoon when my brother – Matthew – and I were dis- cussing project ideas. At the time, I was a postgraduate research student working on my Master’s dissertation and volunteering for an investigative collective called Bellingcat on a project about police violence. Matthew was, among many other things, about to enter the final year of his BA in War Studies. Both of us wanted to start a small project that would allow me to practise the open-source skills I was developing at Bellingcat and hopefully do something useful for the world.
The idea of seafarer abandonment came up because Matthew had just finished reading Ian Urbina’s book, The Outlaw Ocean, and had been very struck by it.
When he brought it up as an idea, I stole his laptop to look at the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) database. After spending an hour transferring the 200-odd active cases onto a spreadsheet, it became clear that the decision was pretty much made.
The reason I wanted to work on this issue was quite simple: Ian Urbina describes abandonment as a crime of neglect, something that isn’t seen as acute or urgent so rarely gets reported on by the mainstream news. The issue is unbelievably invisible to people outside the maritime world. My friend’s reaction is a case in point: upon hearing about our project, she exclaimed, “what? hold up, people still get marooned in the twenty- first century?!” Everyone else we spoke to about it in our lives had a similar, appalled reaction, especially when we listed the conditions abandoned seafarers are often left in for months or even years at a time.
Having also worked on invisible trade-justice issues in supply chains with a professor during my undergraduate degree, I knew just how impactful and important making something visible could be. Therefore, as someone with basic ArcGIS skills, I thought I could turn the big, complicated ILO database into an easily understandable map that summarised the issue and made it clear that abandonment is still a widespread issue.
After we had mapped the whole database (including resolved and inactive cases – over 500 cases and counting), Matthew got in touch with Ian Urbina, who kindly agreed to host it. We then posted it on Twitter. Within a day, it had been picked up by maritime journalist Sam Chambers who wrote an article on it. This boosted the project’s profile significantly and the response on Twitter was far greater than anything I had anticipated.
Since then, we have taken some time to sort out what is happening with the database. A new volunteer collaborator, Genista, has cleaned the spreadsheet this month to make it suitable for public consumption. I am also currently working on ways to make the data even more accessible. The problem with it, as explained to me by someone who used to work on the ILO database, is that the database itself often doesn’t pick up on every case as it relies on busy ITF inspectors and other in-country staff to report in. Nevertheless, what we hope to do is to add cases beyond those that the ILO have, and look into the circumstances behind specific companies that abandon multiple ships – for example, in November, I had a look into the Palmali corporation, which has abandoned nine ships since its founder was arrested in March 2020.
In the meantime, the project is going to remain small and independent, building a literal picture so that organisations can use it to lobby for better labour protections for seafarers.
Eliza Ader is founder of Periplous. Her abandonment map can be viewed here: https://www.theoutlawocean.com/the-hidden-secret/. To express an interest in the project or to make suggestions for further areas of study contact Eliza on email@example.com
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