Navigating towards fairer seas

Survey exposes prevalence of seafarers being charged illegal recruitment fees

By Christos Kontovas

Recruitment or placement fees and charges that are borne by seafarers illegally and in violation of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) are a serious concern in the maritime industry.

Their impact on seafarers and the industry can be significant and can lead to a range of negative consequences. The stress and financial strain of paying illegal fees can take a toll on seafarers’ mental health, limit their career opportunities and lead to loss of trust in the shipping industry. The latter could exacerbate existing labour shortages. These fees and charges can be a significant burden for seafarers, especially those from developing countries. In some cases, seafarers might become trapped in debt bondage and may be forced to work in exploitative and abusive conditions, which are serious violations of their human rights.

The UK’s Liverpool John Moores University is currently undertaking a study which aims to address these exploitative and harmful-to-seafarers practices, by examining the extent of this problem and exploring potential solutions.

In this article, we present the results of a survey which examined the prevalence of these practices. The questionnaire survey was designed in co-operation with The Mission to Seafarers (MtS), who sponsored this study, and the Institute of Human Rights and Business (IHRB).

Geographical spread

We gathered a total of 210 valid answers that were used in our analysis. Most of the respondents came from the Philippines (25.24%), India (21.90%) and Sri Lanka (9.52%). The following are the key results.

Seafarers’ opinion on placement and recruitment fees: In one of our questions, we tried to elicit seafarers’ opinions on illegal demands related to recruitment and placement fees/charges, as they can provide valuable insights into the issue. In their responses, most of the seafarers (almost 92%) indicated a great level of concern about these illegal practices and believed these should stop. In fact, 64.8% of the seafarers who participated in our questionnaire acknowledged that they were aware of these corrupt demands (stating that it had either happened to them or their colleagues).

Placement and recruitment fees – the actual picture: Approximately 21.43% of respondents reported that they had been asked to pay recruitment or placement fees. In terms of the country where the demand for fees was made (this might indicate the place of the middleman or crewing agency), India topped the list (35.5% of cases), followed by the Philippines (13.3%) and Myanmar (11.1%). It is worth noting that 28.26% of Indian seafarers who completed our survey reported that they had paid a fee.

The results of the survey showed that 57.8% of the respondents reported that the crewing agent appointed by the shipping company requested the fees, 11.1% said that the request came from an employee of the shipping company, while 31.1% pointed to an individual with links to the crewing agent or the shipping company.

The amount of money demanded varied from as low as $50-100 to a maximum of around $7,500, with an average of $1,872. We have identified some cases (around 10%) where seafarers are still in debt because of these payments. These debts can place a significant burden on seafarers and can have a negative impact on their mental health and well-being. Further research is needed to investigate the potential for debt bondage (i.e., a form of modern slavery) and exploitation of seafarers.

Regulation support

Seafarers’ familiarity with the MLC Convention and their rights: We also sought to gauge respondents’ familiarity with the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 and other guidelines related to seafarer workplace rights and entitlement. The majority of them (71.4%) confirmed that they are well-versed in the abovementioned guidelines and receive regular training. While we had anticipated that most seafarers would be familiar with these guidelines, a quarter of respondents (25.7%) admitted to only having partial knowledge and limited understanding.

Familiarity with complaint procedures: Seafarers were also asked if they were familiar with the procedure to file a complaint against recruitment fees, corrupt demands, or unlawful retention of their documents. Surprisingly, 35.7% replied that they do not know the procedure to file a complaint. This is alarming considering that the MLC requires each Member State to ensure that ships flying its flag have on board complaint procedures in place to handle seafarer complaints regarding breaches of the convention’s requirements, including seafarers’ rights.

Unlawful retention of seafarer documents: As part of our survey, we asked seafarers whether they had experienced any retention of their documents – such as passports, Continuous Discharge Certificate/ Seaman’s books (CDC), or Certificate of Competency (COC) – during the recruitment/placement process by the hiring company or the recruiting agent. A startling 29% of the survey respondents indicated that they had experienced the retention of some of their documents by the hiring company or the recruiting agent during the recruitment/placement process. In almost all the cases both their Continuous Discharge Certificate/Seaman’s book and passport were retained.

It should be noted that more than half of those who paid a fee also reported having their documents withheld. This high percentage can be attributed to coercion tactics, for example the retention of documents to ensure payment of a recruitment fee, or to guarantee employment on a particular vessel so that the agent receives a fee from the hiring company.

Taking action

We asked seafarers to provide their opinion on four measures that we identified as having the potential to reduce these practices. The largest percentage of respondents (53.1%) suggested that increasing awareness among seafarers through leaflets, on board notices, and social media could be an effective way to combat these practices.

Including MLC awareness certification alongside other STCW certification for seafarers was supported by 32.7% of the seafarers. This could indicate a desire among seafarers for more formal training to improve their knowledge and understanding of their rights under the MLC.

A significant proportion of respondents (31.3%) also suggested that frequent and regular education on what fees can and cannot be requested would be an effective way to reduce malpractices. We feel that there is definitely a need for a clearer understanding of seafarers’ rights and entitlements.

Also, almost 30% of respondents suggested that help to obtain experience during the first years of employment could be an effective way to reduce malpractices related to recruitment fees and corrupt demands.

In addition to the survey responses, we received a significant number of comments in free text format. Most of these comments echoed the abovementioned suggestions. Some pointed to the lack of opportunities for seafarers to secure their first placement on a ship as a root cause of this issue. Others recommended that governments impose hefty penalties on agents who exploit seafarers or hold manning agents and shipping companies accountable. The need for stricter enforcement was also highlighted.

In summary, compelling evidence suggests that seafarers are being charged for their recruitment and placement. Several interesting observations have been made and the complete survey results will be released soon. Our study will conclude with suggestions to reduce these practices, as well as recommendations for future research. Stay tuned!

Christos Kontovas is a reader in Sustainable Maritime Transport and Logistics at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. Christos would like to acknowledge the contribution of his colleagues, Dr Robyn Pyne, Anna Kaparaki and Dr Yinan Yin, as well as former LJMU MSc students and research assistants, Rushdie Rasheed and Isuru Wijeratne, to this study.