HRAS Interview No. 30: Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt Executive Director Rafto Foundation for Human Rights

The Rafto Legacy

Photo Credit: Hans Jørgen Brun

Interview with Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt Executive Director Rafto Foundation for Human Rights

The Rafto Foundation for Human Rights was established in 1987 in memory of Professor Thorolf Rafto (1922-1986), an iconic lecturer in economics at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, Norway.

Now, a little over 30 years on, one of a new generation of supporters, Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt, is inspired to continue Rafto’s work. Kobbeltvedt joined the Foundation as Director last year after over a decade of working on international development issues and social activism around the world.

Born in Bergen, he coincidentally met Rafto when he was four years’ old, long before he was inspired by Rafto’s unwavering commitment to support dissidents, the oppressed and the persecuted, but like many working for the Foundation today, he found Rafto’s legacy just as relevant today as it was back then.

As well as running advocacy and education initiatives, the Foundation has awarded the Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights (the Rafto Prize) to a human rights defender every year since 1987. HRAS spoke to Jostein to see how the Foundation is moving forward and extending its operations into the maritime world.

Tell us about Professor Rafto’s work.

Thorolf Rafto was a Professor of Economic History at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen. He was not satisfied with a quiet and safe academic life. Instead, he took an active role in world issues.

He was admired for his unshakeable integrity and devoted much of his life to the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights, especially in Eastern Europe, where he travelled extensively. Rafto was an important spokesman for the persecuted Jews and intellectuals in the former Soviet Union and for political dissidents in other Eastern European countries.

He was arrested in 1979 in Prague after holding a lecture for young people who were excluded from the university for political reasons. He was beaten by security police and suffered from the inflicted injuries for the rest of his life. He died on November 4, 1986, 64 years old.

His son Egil was a co-founder of the Rafto Foundation. Did he follow in his father’s footsteps?

Egil Rafto was a journalist enthusiastically engaged in the struggle for human rights. In 1989, he organised aid shipments to orphanages in Romania, which at the time suffered from very serious shortages of funds, food and the equipment needed to provide decent shelter for the children. He was active in running a number of humanitarian organisations, including the Rafto Foundation.

Egil Rafto was also chairman of the National Foundation for Film Production and the Theatre Society of Bergen. His journalistic work included reporting on news, sports, literature, music and other current events. He also made documentaries about topics such as the homeless children of Brazil.

He worked for various media organisations in his hometown of Bergen, and towards the end of his life, for the national broadcaster NRK. He died in January 1997, 45 years old.

What strikes you personally as the most important aspect of human rights today?

We need to be constantly reminded that human rights are for everyone. If human rights are violated in one sector, for example for a Filipino seafarer on an oil tanker, it is an issue for all of us. If one person’s human rights are violated, and that violation is accepted, we run the risk of having our own rights violated.

We are seeing now, both in the U.S. and Britain, and to some extent also in Norway, that when we talk about refugees or fighting terrorism, there are politicians that are more and more openly saying that if human rights stand in the way, then they will set those rights aside. They say it very explicitly, and we the human rights community, need to work very actively to ensure that people who today feel safe in their democracy, their welfare state, are reminded that human rights are in all of our interests. When politicians can explicitly say that they will set aside human rights, and a lot of people feel human rights are about minorities, someone else, we should remember World War II. After the war, there were strong feelings about human rights, because we saw what happens if governments don’t respect human rights. That’s the challenge we will face in the coming years.

What activities is the Foundation undertaking to support that view?

2016: 18 Rafto laureates for the 30 year anniversary in Bergen Photo Credit: Hans Jørgen Brun

Our primary purpose is to award the annual Professor Thorolf Rafto’s Prize for Human Rights work. We try and draw attention to the causes our laureates are fighting for, and we try to connect our laureates and create platforms where they can support each other. In some cases, the Rafto Foundation has followed and supported the laureates and the organisations they represent for a decade or longer.

We also offer human rights education to local and international audiences. We currently have about 5,000 students college students taking part in our education programs on democracy, integration and racism. This autumn we are launching a human rights course at the University of Bergen.

Additionally, we work on other issues such as freedom of speech which is a common issue for most of our laureates, and we also support female human rights defenders in the Middle East and South East Asia. The projects have all in some way been inspired by or initiated by our laureates.

Rafto Laureate 2017 Yanar Mohammed
Photo Credit: Hans Jørgen Brun

How are laureates chosen?

Our prize committee tries to find someone that has not received a lot of awards, someone who is not yet famous and influential. In that way, we try to find somewhere where the award can make a difference, and we commit to working with the laureate for as long as it takes to achieve that.

During the first few years, the Rafto Foundation was mainly concerned with the struggle for human rights in Eastern Europe; this was also the main focus for the work of Professor Rafto himself. After the peaceful democratic revolutions that swept over Eastern Europe in 1989, the Rafto Foundation turned its attention further afield. The first prize awarded to a recipient working outside Europe was given to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma in 1990.

Many Rafto laureates are individuals working for people living in areas strongly influenced by major powers such as Russia, China and India. Other laureates have addressed problems that are truly international, such as organised crime in different forms or the plight of the Roma people.

The Foundation is based in Bergen rather than Oslo which is home to other human rights organisations. Is that an advantage?

In Bergen, we have the opportunity to work more closely with the business sector and academia. We are not so surrounded by all the other NGOs located in Oslo. We are currently working with some Norwegian companies that have a business footprint globally. We are helping them to increase their understanding of human rights issues, and to support that, we are developing a training package for businesses working globally.

How did you get involved with the shipping industry?

We are working with some of the big Norwegian companies, and we identified the shipping industry as one of the areas that we would like to focus on. Shipping has been one of the big industries in Norway for more than a century, and given we are a small country, we’ve provided quite a lot of seafarers and ships to the world during that time. Today, there are few Norwegians working on those ships, but Norwegian shipping companies are still influential, as are Norwegian investors.

What human rights issues affect shipping?

Generally, the shipping community has not focused much on human rights issues yet. One of the reasons the shipping industry has made less progress on workers’ rights than other industries is a lack of feeling of solidarity. People don’t know the workers, don’t know where they come from and don’t interact with them much. By nature, they are moving around, which also makes it more difficult for people within the industry to organize on industrial issues.

We have dialogue with Norwegian shipowners who were shocked to find out that, for example, there was a case where North Korean slave labour was being used in a shipbuilding production line in Poland; not directly, but via a sub-contractor.

We have talked openly about the challenges of this and the lack of information available, and we are very grateful for Human Rights at Sea, as they can shed light on such issues. There are not many other organizations that have this competence, and they have really set the agenda within an area of human rights and business that few others have been able to do.

It is very timely, and we want to put pressure on the business sector, so it is important to have such an organization to provide the knowledge and focus within a sector that is lagging behind.

Thank you, Jostein.

For more information about the RAFTO Foundation please see here

Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:



HRAS Interview No. 29: NGO Profile of Jas Uppal Founder Justice Upheld

NGO Profile: Justice Upheld

Jas Uppal started Justice Upheld after hearing of an Indian national on death row in Pakistan. His desperate family had no lawyer and no paperwork and were rapidly losing hope.

Since then, Jas has worked to free people held in unlawful detention from as young as 12 and as old as 76. Those freed are sometimes able to smuggle out a small piece of paper with names written on it – the names of others held in arbitrary detention, sometimes for decades.

How did you first get involved?

I’m a trained lawyer. I’m of Indian origin, although I live in Birmingham here in England. After visiting India as an adult, I fell in love with the country. At the time, I was working in the legal department of the police service in England. I was watching the news online about an Indian national who was due to be executed in Pakistan, but his execution has been stayed. I was horrified to find that he came to be convicted on very tenuous, dubious circumstances and evidence.

I managed to get hold of his sister. She was campaigning, and I was expecting her to tell me, “I’ve got a team of lawyers.” She had none, and no legal paperwork, but she had kept him alive for 18 years at that point by calling on government officials, Bollywood stars, anyone she could.

I informed the U.N., the U.K. Prime Minister and had an online petition. Sadly, the gentleman, Sarabjit Singh, was later murdered in his high security prison. His case was quite controversial over in Pakistan, and I still maintain that his murder was state orchestrated.

Did you ever have direct contact with Sarabjit?

He sent me a note saying, “Thank you for your help.” I was trying to get everyone to take notice and forward any information, but nobody would listen, not even the authorities. I’d hear things like, “Oh well, there’s 7,164 people on death row in Pakistan, we can’t help all of them.”

I was really taken back by that. You don’t say that, you know what I mean? I expected the same action to be taken as if he had been a British or American national. I expected the Indian government to be indignant, to demand access and to ask for court papers. Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen.

When he was murdered, then people were interested. The Pakistani authorities announced that they were going to hold an inquiry into his murder. I was invited to Pakistan to attend the inquiry. I made submissions via e-mail instead. Over four years on, the Pakistani authorities have yet to schedule the inquiry.

Looking back, a lot more could have been done, and should have been done, unfortunately. Being born and raised in this country, it was surreal, and you realize that you’re blind to the rest of the world. You realize just how fortunate you are.

You now dedicate much of your time to the charity. How did your efforts for Sarabjit lead you forward?

As a result of media attention from his case, I started getting loads of people contacting me with family members in similar situations – brothers, fathers, uncles – missing for years or even decades. I was shocked.

I started off by getting all the information, presenting it and making sure it got released, trying to generate a response from the Indian authorities: asking, “What are you doing? What have you done?”

This resulted in a lot of people of being released including a 76 year old man who was in prison for 36 years: Surjit Singh was finally released after 36 years in Kot Lakphat Prison in Pakistan following a dubious conviction in 1976 for spying. He was denied access to legal advice and representation and therefore did not have a fair trial. He was sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life in imprisonment. In Pakistan, a life sentence is equivalent to 25 years in prison. This means that Mr Singh’s sentence should have been completed in 2004.

In another case, a Pakistani reporter, Zeenat Shehzadi, was abducted in 2015.

Zeenat was reporting on the case of missing Indian national, Hamid Nehal Ansari who who persuaded by his Facebook friends in Pakistan to travel to Afghanistan and then enter Pakistan -without valid travelling documents.

It transpires that Hamid had developed an online friendship with a young lady. He was persuaded to rescue her from a forced marriage, but this appears to have been a ploy – he was reported to the police by his contacts who handed him in turn to the Pakistani intelligence services.

I was instructed by Professor Fauzia Ansari, Hamid’s mother. Pakistan proceeded to court martial Hamid, even although he is a civilian, and thereafter convicted him of espionage and sentenced him to 3.5 years. This was despite the fact that he had already been detained without charge for over 3.5 years.

Despite my advice not to involve Zeenat, since she would be placed at risk, Mrs Ansari connected with Zeenat via Facebook and asked her report on Hamid’s case, which she did. Zeenat has not been since her abduction, and the police are no longer investigating. I have reported her disappearance to a number of organisations including journalist’s organisations, however, they do not appear to be interested.

Does your work involve people in detention elsewhere in the world?

Yes, I am working in the Middle East too. Sukhdev Singh from Punjab who went to work in Oman on a work visa in May 2010. He was employed to work at a prison on Masirah Island in Oman. While there he was approached by a man who recognized him as a Punjabi. The man, about 70 years old, was Sepoy Jaspal Singh of the Punjab Regiment during the 1971 Indian-Pakistani war. He and four others were captured by the Pakistani Army in 1971. Singh said there were two other prisoners of war at the prison.

It appears that Pakistan may have moved the Indian prisoners of war to different prisons – outside Pakistan jurisdiction and presumably with the agreement of Oman. 40 years on, both the Indian Government and the international community, have failed investigate the matter. However, the Indian government is coming under increasing pressure to lobby Pakistan for the release of over 50 such prisoners of war held since the 1971 conflict.

I’m also currently helping around 50 ladies that are stuck in Oman, definite cases of slavery, and I’ve had cases of both women and men. Their passports are confiscated, and they even refer to their so-called employers as their owners. I have had to tell them: he is not your owner, she is not your owner. You’re a free person. And I find that extremely concerning.

It’s not just Indians. It’s Filipinos, Malaysians, and quite a few female domestic workers from Sri Lanka who end up being prostituted. I have helped the ones that come to my attention by reporting to the authorities, making a big fuss and getting on to the missions of the various countries.

Why do these people get involved in schemes that lead to slavery?

There’s a sort of acceptance, because a lot of them are trying to support their families. They see the chance for work overseas as their way out. I think it’s extremely important that this is stated, because it explains why people are running out of their country for better countries, the western countries or the so-called developed countries. Why the mass exodus? The answer is, it’s lack of respect, process, procedures, in their own country. And slowness in addressing the problems that they have in those countries.

For example, quite naively, when people went missing and their relatives contacted me, I would say to them, “You’ve got to begin by reporting it to the police.” They made it sound so difficult, and I couldn’t understand this until I experienced it. There are some very corrupt regimes – you have to bribe to even be able to register police complaints. Even then, action is not guaranteed.

How can slavery be so accepted by authorities?

It is a reflection of the Kafala System. “Kafala” is an Arabic word which means “sponsorship.” Kafala operates in the Gulf States, and it is unique to these Middle Eastern states, encouraging and facilitating forced labor.

The power is entirely in the hands of the employer known as the kafeel. The kafeel can dictate the conditions and terms of work, including the accommodation of the work migrant.

There are many cases where the kafeel has, unbeknownst to the work migrant, failed to renew their work visas which has resulted in the migrant being forced to work without being paid for months. They are too frightened to leave the kafeel to report the matter to the police, since the police will arrest and jail them. This often means months and even years of imprisonment.

The migrant worker is prohibited from changing jobs, resigning or leaving the country. If a migrant worker leaves his employment, the kafeel has the unilateral power to cancel the migrant worker’s right to remain in the country which will render the migrant worker an illegal immigrant and most likely will result in their arrest and subsequent deportation.

The system is archaic, medieval, brutal and is in absolute contradiction of international labor laws and conventions.

Have you helped seafarers?

Indian fishermen sometimes end up in Pakistani territory inadvertently. In one case, a fisherman aged 12 was released at the age of 36. He handed me a note, I’ve got the original, and it lists a number of Indian nationals detained in the Pakistani prison. I referred it to the U.N. Some of those named on the list have been released but not all of them. The author has not included his name; he has been accused of espionage. I am concerned about making it public, since in the last few years, a number of Indian prisoners have died in mysterious circumstances whilst in Pakistani custody.

In another case, four Indian nationals were contracted to work on the cargo ship Janan, owned by an Iranian national. The Janan arrived at a Kuwaiti port on May 13, 2013 where the four men and the Captain were arrested for the alleged illegal importation of contraband diesel. The Captain, Masood Khalif, had maintained that the diesel was fuel surplus reserve stock to power the vessel.

Three of the Indians remain in detention, one is confined to house arrest, while the Iranian Captain remained at liberty until May 2015 when he managed to leave Kuwait without having to answer the charges laid against him.

Despite being subject to legal proceedings, the Indian nationals have not been informed of the charges against them or served with copies of the charge sheets or with copies of the pleadings. The Irainian captain attended all court hearings and was provided with legal representation by the Iranian shipowners whilst the Indian nationals were unrepresented and denied the opportunity to appear before the court to learn of the case against them and present their defense.

The seafarers are being pressured by Kuwaiti officials as well as members of the public to convert from their faith to the Muslim faith. Some of these people have shown willingness to help them on the condition that they convert.

The men genuinely fear now that the captain has fled (presumably to Iran) that court proceedings will be directed against them. The Indian Mission in Kuwait has failed to provide the men with consular support and legal advice since their arrest in May 2013. Our work on this case continues.

Thank-you Jas.

Justice Upheld

Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:





HRAS Interview No. 28: NGO Confronts Abortion Rights at Sea

Last year’s Zika virus outbreak saw a dramatic increase in demand for safe abortions in Latin-American countries.

The virus can cause foetal brain developmental problems, and data from Women on Web, an NGO that provides access to safe abortions in countries where they are not universally available, was used to verify the jump in what activists and doctors had been reporting as an acute need for abortion services. The World Health Organization predicts that the Zika virus will affect four million people globally in 2017, but the associated risks are just one of many reasons why a woman may seek an abortion.

Dr Rebecca Gomperts

Women on Web is an extension of the NGO Women on Waves. Both NGOs were founded by Dr Rebecca Gomperts with the aim of bringing legal abortions and reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

Sailing in international waters gives Women on Waves the freedom to conduct abortions legally, so long as the vessel flies the flag of a country where abortion is legal. The NGO has sailed vessels to Ireland, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and, most recently, Guatemala. In this South American country, abortion is only legal if the woman’s life is at risk. However, around 65,000 abortions are performed there illegally each year.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Dr. Gomperts about women’s rights and the challenges the NGOs face.

How many abortions are performed around the world?

Dr Rebecca Gomperts talking to media in Spain

There are 43 million abortions taking place every year throughout the world. In the Netherlands and the U.S., one out of five (Netherlands) or one out of three (U.S.) women will have an abortion once or twice in their lifetime.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, because there is good sexual education and contraception is widely available.

The lowest abortion rate in the world is eight per thousand per year in women of child bearing age. That’s translates to a rate of one in five women having an abortion in their lifetime. It is the minimum rate that can be achieved, because contraceptives fail, and that is the most common grounds for having an abortion in the Netherlands. Women used contraceptives, but they didn’t work.

Are women of certain religious, cultural or social backgrounds most affected by lack of access to abortion services?

It doesn’t matter what religion or what race women are. What matters is their socio-economic background and whether or not they can afford to have safe abortions. That’s all: in any country, in any religion.

The problem occurs when there’s no safe abortion services available. This doesn’t prevent abortions from happening; it just creates social injustice, because the women in the country that have money, that are in higher social classes, that have access to doctors there, are able to get an abortion even though it is very expensive. In Brazil, for example, an illegal abortion with a doctor can cost at least $1,500 dollars.

Alternatively, women are traveling to have an abortion. We see this in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal, so women have to travel to the U.K. An abortion for women that live in the U.K. is free, but it’s not for women who live in Northern Ireland. They need at least 2,000 Euros.

So, it’s the poor women, the women who don’t have access to information, who are actually effected by restrictive abortion laws. That is the heart of this issue. An anti-abortion law is not going to stop abortions, and women who have no means or that are poor will suffer from the consequences. They are the ones that will have unsafe abortions if there is no other alternative.

In the U.K., as well, there’s many women who can’t get to an abortion clinic. They might be in an abusive relationship, or they have kids at home, they can’t take time off work, they don’t have money for a babysitter, they are in rural areas or they have to travel a prohibitively long way to get to a clinic.

How can the situation be changed?

Only when abortion is totally decriminalized can all of women’s rights be respected. We are advocating for making the abortion pill available in pharmacies, like Viagra. Viagra is more dangerous to use then the medical abortion pill, much more dangerous, and it’s readily available in pharmacies.

Why is a medical abortion pill not available in pharmacies? Because it’s effecting women and not men. This is about equal rights.

Medical science should determine how a medicine is available and not criminal laws.

Women on Waves in Morocco

How does Women on Waves help women to have an abortion?

Our yacht can carry eight to 10 people, and we have many doctors that participate and a gynecologist who often goes along.

On board, we have a mobile ultrasound and medicines and all the emergency medicines that are needed.

We launch a hotline and announce the service so that women can call and make an appointment. The ship comes into the harbor, the women come aboard, a maximum of five per day, and then we sail out. There is counseling according to Dutch-European standards, and then in international waters, women will take the abortion pill if they still want to.

They then go ashore, and we keep in touch by telephone. They can do a follow up pregnancy test or come to the ship for an ultrasound if they wish.

The pill can be used safely until 10 weeks of pregnancy.

What are the human rights issues relating to the foetus?

Women are risking their health and their life to have a baby. Giving birth is one of the riskiest events in a woman’s life. In the Netherlands, 10,000 women die from giving birth each year. In other countries, the number is much higher.

Of course, most women want to have the pregnancy, and they want to continue it. But, if you look at the right to life and the right to health of the woman when it concerns the pregnancy, her risk is much greater if she continues it. So, her life has precedence over the foetus, because there is no viable foetus until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If the foetus would be born at that time, it has some chance of survival significant enough for most people to say that this is when the rights of the foetus become important. Then, for example in the U.K. or Netherlands, one cannot choose to have an abortion any more.

Crew detained in Guatemala

Do you receive support or at least acceptance from maritime authorities in the countries you visit?

No. The port state authorities are quite difficult, although they are often being directed by the government. In Portugal, they stopped us from sailing in, and in Guatemala they didn’t let anyone near the ship or let the crew out. The ship was expelled from port for reasons of state security. So, women needing an abortion are an issue of state security?

We’ve had a couple of case where navies have intervened. That says something! Why would the military intervene with something that is only about women, her body, her rights, her health? I think that this shows we are actually talking about fundamental freedoms.

These government interventions are not physical violence, but I feel like they are a form of intimation which is very violent, especially since the crew and the ship hadn’t done anything.

How do you feel about criticism of what you are doing?

We get a lot of very grateful women. That’s what matters to us. That’s the only thing that is at stake. Any other actions and opinions don’t really matter. It’s the women that need help.

Women on Waves in Guatemala

Do you feel safe in international waters?

Yes, because the law of the flag state applies. The whole world functions like this, right? It’s part of what the biggest businesses do. We are doing the same as any company would do when they are going to countries, for example, because they have another banking system or other tax laws.

We use it for human rights issues and health issues for women, so it’s better.

But it’s not a legal vacuum. It’s just different regulations and different laws around the world that we are using to make sure women are safe. There is very clear agreement internationally that, if a ship is in international waters, the law of the ship’s flag applies. The ship is a piece of ground of that country.

It’s not like we have no law, rather we have to comply with the laws of another country.

Thank-you, Dr Gomperts.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


HRAS Interview No.27: Jason Lam ITF Hong Kong – Beyond the Reach of Labor Laws

Beyond the Reach of Labor Laws

China ratified the Maritime Labor Convention last year; Hong Kong is yet to do so. Jason Lam, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Inspector in Hong Kong, talks about the union’s role in wage negotiations, how the MLC is raising conditions for many seafarers and why others are beyond its reach.


What role does the Hong Kong ITF play in seafarer welfare?

Our office often handles cases in mainland China as well as Hong Kong, as the ITF is not present in China other than in Hong Kong. Our main focus is the ITF flag of convenience campaign that aims to protect seafarers working on ships whose flag state does not offer strong legislation to protect them. The union has set up collective bargaining agreements with willing shipping companies to ensure that crews are paid according to our minimum wage scale and provided with decent working conditions on board. We conduct inspections to check on ships entering Hong Kong and handle any complaints from seafarers in the region, regardless of their vessel’s flag.

We have a close relationship with the local port state control in Hong Kong, but as Hong Kong has not ratified the MLC, the port state control cannot do much about seafarer welfare – they are mainly focused on the safety of the vessel.

So, the ITF helps in various ways; we try to negotiate with the owner and local authorities. Therefore, the union acts like a middleman between the worker and the employer. Legal action is usually a last resort if there’s really no chance of a resolution by negotiation. It’s always the last resort, because the crew will need to spend more time and sometimes money. Often the ITF will provide legal assistance, but it is a case by case decision.

We also work with charities such as the Mission to Seafarers. In fact, we often carry out routine inspections together. Each week the Hong Kong ITF randomly chooses to inspect three or four vessels out of the 100 or more that come into the harbour. The charities go to the ship to provide newspapers, medicines etc while we do our inspection. Sometimes, the charities hear about wage problems first and then share the information with us.

Has the MLC had an impact on seafarer welfare?

Nowadays, with the MLC entering into force, conditions on many ships, including flag of convenience ships, are much better than before. The most obvious improvement is in living conditions and rest hours. Management give more consideration to rest hours, because it is a serious deficiency if seafarers have had to work too long. Now, proper record is kept, and this is good for seafarers.

However, the MLC has not been ratified by all flag states. Hong Kong is one of the bigger shipping registries, but they are still to ratify. And many countries, even if they have ratified, have a long way to go to fully implement the MLC. In our experience, even a ship flagged with a state that has ratified can have problems.

How has the prolonged downturn in shipping affected seafarer welfare?

We have had more and more abandonment cases and seafarer complaints about unpaid wages in the last six months. It seems to happen cyclically with the shipping economy. There is no particular pattern with respect to flag or owner. We have cases with Chinese owners, Greek owners and owners in the Middle East.

Even now in China I am handling a case of abandonment. The ship has been in China for quite a long time without the seafarers being paid wages. This owner is from Bahrain. In another ongoing case, the Liberty Prrudentia, the owners are Indian.

Yet another ship, the Banco 1, has been stranded for about six years now – it has a Bahrain owner. They change the crew every year, but the current crew have not been paid for a year or more. The master has been there nearly two years now. A few months ago, the crew asked me to start legal action, and the ITF is assisting with a lawyer in China. Some of the crew want to leave, but they are obliged to stay in order to maintain minimum manning levels on board.

Mostly, the crews stay on board in cases like this, because they believe they still have a chance of getting money from the owner. This is very common. If the seafarers have not been paid for two or three months, they are willing to wait on board until they realize there is no chance. If they leave the vessel, they have nothing.

Usually shipping is a good career, because in many countries, as a seafarer, they earn much more than if they were working ashore. However, if the economy goes down or the company has problems, they can be hurt more, as they are dependent on the owner. They can’t just head home and look for another job – it’s not easy to withdraw their labour.

Seafarers on fishing vessels are not covered by the MLC. Are you still able to help them?

Not so much, but if there is a complaint we will try and help them through legal effort. It’s not that easy, because proceeds from the sale of a fishing vessel are not usually enough to cover legal costs. The fishing vessels in Hong Kong usually have a Taiwanese or Chinese owner, and, in my experience, most of the cases for compensation are closed through negotiation.

I recently handled a complaint about a seafarer from Myanmar working on a fishing vessel owned by a Taiwanese company. The crew had been working on the fishing vessel for over a year and their families hadn’t heard from them and were worried. They made contact with ITF in Myanmar, who then contacted me. I was able to track down the owner, and the company finally sent the seafarers home in May. I received a very happy email from the family saying they had met their brother at the airport.

We’ve also had some recent cases of seafarers from Vietnam and Myanmar who were told they were going to work on a large cargo vessel. There was no mention of a fishing vessel, but they ended up on a small boat catching squid off Africa. Usually these scenarios involve very low wages, about $200 or $300 per month, and the living conditions are very bad. The master is usually Chinese or Taiwanese and the crew are from Myanmar, so communication is not good.

We received a complaint about a lack of provisions on board another fishing vessel recently. The wages were not paid on time either. We tried to contact the company to make sure the seafarers were at least paid what their contract stated. This type of vessel does not have ITF collective bargaining agreements, so we cannot ask for more.

When has legal action been successful?

In June last year, after being stuck on board, unpaid, for eight months in the middle of Hong Kong harbor, the crew of the casino ship New Imperial Star headed home, thanks to legal action undertaken with the assistance of the ITF.

The crew of 46 are owed $564,000 in back pay and compensation. The case is currently before the High Court of Hong Kong, and it is anticipated that the court will release their wages after selling the ship. The ITF and the Merchant Navy Officers’ Guild-Hong Kong funded an advance on their wages and paid for their tickets home.

The case is a success story for us. The legislation in Hong Kong is actually better than in a lot of other countries. We hope to achieve a similar outcome for the crew of the Liberty Prrudentia. This vessel is at anchor in Zhoushan in northern China, and the crew have gone unpaid since November 2016. They have had limited supplies of food and water, and the owner is bankrupt. The Indian embassy have been informed and have arranged visa extension for the crew while we help them make a legal claim.

What are the challenges for seafarers looking for help?

If everything worked perfectly, there would not be a need for a union. Our role then is if the authorities or owners don’t respond, seafarers will contact us. They find that the union is closer to them, and, in our area, we know better than they do how to contact local authorities. Sometimes they are not aware of legislation that could help them, and often they don’t know how to contact their own embassy. That was the case with the crew of the Liberty Prrudentia, so we contacted the Indian embassy in Shanghai and asked them to help.

Do you believe that Human Rights at Sea has been helpful?

The case of the Liberty Prrudentia is my first experience of cooperating with Human Rights at Sea. Both Mission to Seafarers and Human Rights at Sea are quite important for protecting seafarers’ rights. If a seafarer has a problem at sea, there is no support, and they need to find a solution by all means they can – the union, charities and the authorities. I think the more options they have, the easier it will be for them to get the information they need to protect their rights.

Thank you, Jason.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:



HRAS Interview No.26: Keeping Children Out of Piracy

HRAS Interview: Keeping Children Out of Piracy

A much needed first step has been taken to raise awareness of the horrific abuse of children in piracy.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative began academic research, in collaboration with Human Rights at Sea, the Dalhousie University Marine Piracy Project and the 100 Series Rules, in 2011. Following on from that, in 2016, Darin Reeves, Director of Training for the Dallaire Initiative, led their creation of Children Affected by Maritime Piracy: A Handbook for Maritime Security Sector Actors.

On behalf of the Dallaire Initiative, Darin explains how children are involved, how their recruitment is intertwined with terrorism and how adults confronting them can suffer the consequences.

What is the scale of children’s involvement in piracy?

Currently there is very little objective evidence, in large part due to a lack of reporting and research. It is much the same when it comes to estimating the number of child soldiers around the world.

However, based on evidence from pirates detained off the coast of Somalia, a large number of those directly engaged in piracy are under the age of 18. In fact, it is estimated that in 2014 up to 20 percent of all maritime pirates apprehended off the coast of East Africa were under the age of 18.

Within the Handbook, we quoted Rajat Pandit at The Times of India:

“In 2011, the Indian Navy announced that 25 of 61 recently arrested pirates were under the age of 15, with four of them estimated to be just 11 years old, while reports from the area consistently tell of an increased use of children to commit acts of piracy as older, established pirates remained ashore while recruiting and sending children out to sea to continue attacking ships and their crews.”

We also quoted the 6719th meeting of the U.N. Security Council, held on 22 February 2012, where it was reported:

“The United Nations envoy for children and armed conflict has reported a trend showing increased use of children recruited to seize ships for ransom, and that former child soldiers were noted to move from Islamist extremist groups to become pirates. This trend was underscored in a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in 2012, citing strong evidence of cooperation between Al-Shabaab terrorists and pirates.”

How is terrorism intertwined with piracy?

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime noted strong evidence of a link between Al-Shabaab rebels and maritime pirates in a 2012 report to the U.N. Security Council. This symbiotic relationship is not one of mutual support, rather it reflects in part the desire by both parties to use a common “resource” – children – to take part in their activities.

The fact that maritime piracy in a particular area may ebb and flow is of no surprise; what surprised us through our research is the link between this activity and the resurgence of armed conflict ashore.

For example, following the armed entry by Kenya into Somalia in 2011 to attack Al-Shabaab strongholds, the rate of maritime piracy attacks – and the attendant use of children – decreased. Subsequent and recent attacks by African and American forces against Al-Shabaab weakened its position, and a rise in maritime piracy was noted.

It is therefore likely that as such armed groups ashore who use children as soldiers are reduced, the community of maritime pirates seizes the opportunity to recruit and use these very same children – in some cases further abusing those youths who have only just been disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated back to their families, communities and societies.

How is a “child” defined, especially in cultures where children often work at ages typically younger than Western cultures?

This is a question that defies universal acceptance. As a result, in writing the Handbook I adapted the Paris Principles and Guidelines definition of Child Soldiers to all “Child[ren] Associated with Maritime Piracy as:

“any person below 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by a maritime armed group or criminal organization in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as sailors, fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.”

Beyond actively participating in hijackings, a child may assist adult confederates in various auxiliary capacities. For example, Andrew Mwangura, director of the Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, has noted that young Somali girls are often hired by pirates to cook, clean and guard hostages.

In April 2011, Spiegel International published a story that aptly illustrates the reality of child recruitment, when it wrote on the recruitment of Abdiwali, a Somali child pirate who was apprehended during the liberation of the MV Taipan and subsequently put on trial in Germany.

Abdiwali said that he had to begin fending for himself at the age of 10. At 13, he worked as a fisherman and piloted a small motorboat, where he was paid $2-3 a day. He learned to drive a fishing boat. They would spend weeks at sea and when they returned, his wages were barely enough to survive for the next week.

One day, a man offered him $500 for a better job. It wasn’t until he was on board the dhow that they told him that a ship [the MV Taipan] was to be hijacked. Hunger and poverty, he said, had motivated him to commit this crime and he never asked himself whether he wanted to be a part of it. It had all seemed self-evident to him.

Why are children chosen over adults?

A number of experts in the world of private maritime security agree that children are frequently employed as interlocutors during ransom negotiations because they are widely perceived as being irrational and unpredictable. Somali pirates have discovered that insurance companies and hostages’ family members can be frightened into paying a higher ransom if a child acts as the pirates’ primary negotiator.

Adult pirates often claim not to know that it is illegal to employ children. They would like to increase the size of their piracy force so they can assume control over more piracy vessels or improve their ability to attack target vessels. Children are viewed as being obedient and easily manipulated and are therefore seen as posing less of a potential threat to piracy commanders.

Children are agile and effective at scaling small or light ladders and can get into tighter spaces than adults. Children are perceived as naive and brave, thus willing to take risks without contemplating the consequences. Children are considered cheap, expendable and easily found in large numbers.

Also, children require very limited training. Once they can handle a small boat, shoot and dismantle and clean a gun, they are ready to be employed on board piracy vessels.

Importantly, children pose a moral problem for mariners, as most professional sailors and maritime security sector actors will hesitate to shoot when faced with a child holding a gun.

Are some children particularly vulnerable?

There are many factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to recruitment: being impoverishment; travelling unaccompanied; being an orphan; homelessness; living in an internally displaced persons or refugee camp; being female; being illiterate; having a relationship or friendship with someone who has joined a maritime piracy group; escaping from forced labour (e.g. fishing, mine, factory, field worker, etc.); belonging to a community that hosts a maritime piracy group; belonging to a persecuted ethnic or religious minority; being in conflict with the law; and being addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, and it is a cyclic thing. Children, raised and inculcated at an early age to the violence and depravity, enter a cycle of violence that only perpetuates conflict, both at sea and ashore.

What are the moral dilemmas for people involved in shipping or maritime security?

To borrow from a statement made by our founder General Roméo Dallaire, while speaking in the context of child soldiers: “Shock hits you as you realize this soldier is not a man or a professional – not your equal in age, strength, training, understanding. This soldier is a child, in the tattered remnants of a military uniform, with dozens more children behind him.”

Aside from the physical threat that child maritime pirates may present mariners and maritime security sector actors, facing them can also cause psychological harm in a number of ways.

One of the most likely sources of psychological harm is employing deadly force against children. There is a duality inherent in this situation: they are both a child, someone who is vulnerable, impressionable, frequently irrational and deserving of the utmost protection; and at the same time, they are also potentially violent, unpredictable individuals who can threaten the sailor, and they may view themselves more as an adult than a child.

When facing a child pirate, the mariner or maritime security sector actor may have to choose between defending their own life, their shipmate’s, their ship and sparing the life of a child. Such decisions are never easy to make, especially when under the time pressures of a potentially deadly engagement.

This can lead to what is termed a “moral injury” – when one perpetrates an act against another person that breaks with one’s sense of morals. This could, for instance, occur if a mariner or maritime security sector actor shoots and kills a child pirate or, shocked by the situation, fails to react appropriately and others are harmed as a consequence.

The symptoms of moral injuries may include shame or guilt for the act, flashbacks to the act and difficulties sleeping or concentrating.

Psychological harm can also be caused by witnessing or being subjected to traumatic events, such as being threatened with death or having a colleague killed. These may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other operational stress injuries, which also exhibits symptoms of flashbacks, concentration and sleep difficulties and hyper-arousal.

Even if symptoms do not lead to a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, traumatic events can also lead to depression, alcohol use, relationship problems aggression, or other mental health challenges.

How these types of operational stress may impact security sector actors facing child maritime pirates has not been specifically researched.


In order to better prepare mariners and maritime security sector actors for the moral and psychological dilemmas associated with engaging children associated with maritime piracy, improved effort must also be made to create a reporting system. Incident reports from sea should be effectively analyzed and the results fed back into the training cycle.

Finally, all mariners and maritime security sector actors who have faced children associated with maritime piracy should be offered quality post-incident counselling to help mitigate any ensuing negative psychological effects.

What do you hope to achieve with the Handbook and your involvement with the Dallaire Initiative?

Our goal, as with child soldiers, is to end their recruitment and use by proactively educating and training those who face this phenomenon most directly and most commonly. We aim to reduce the perceived advantage of using children in this role, and increase public awareness and abhorrence for such a practice.

If there are no advantages to using children, leaving only their disadvantages, such as being weaker, less resilient, easier to distract and less capable of advanced training, and leaving those responsible for their recruitment and use subject to increased legal sanction, then we will begin to stop their use all together.

What successes have you had so far?

We have succeeded in helping to raise awareness of children associated with maritime piracy and their special needs, which has in part seen the establishment of special processes for captured and detained child pirates. We have also succeeded in engaging civilian mariner organizations as well as state naval forces who are interested in training their personnel on how to better deal with children associated with maritime piracy.

How does the Handbook fit with the 100 Series Rules of Force?

Much like the Handbook, the 100 Series Rules of Force was the first of its kind to provide the international maritime community with a model set of rules to govern the use of force in self defence. While Rules of Engagement are a well-known military idea, setting out the circumstances for military, including naval forces to lawfully use force in order to achieve their mission, prior to the 100 Series no such guidance or benchmark was available within the civilian sphere.

With these rules however, private maritime security companies now have guidance that incorporates international law and internationally generally accepted legal recommendations regarding the use of force in situations where the concept of self defence is engaged.

When combined with the guidance found within the Handbook, which itself also seeks to proactively educate and train civilian mariners and marine security sector actors, members of the maritime industry are better equipped to deal with this phenomena.

How do you view Human Rights at Sea?

Human Rights at Sea is a cutting-edge organization helping to shine a light on the previously ignored, misunderstood or simply suppressed issue of human rights beyond borders – on the high seas. In many ways, mariners are more vulnerable than those who remain ashore, as once at sea it is only the “law of the flag” that will apply – including that state’s human rights legislation. Moreover, even the flag state human rights legislation is often scant protection, as there is frequently no investigative or enforcement mechanism on board a merchant vessel to protect the sailor.

Human Rights at Sea is therefore filling a much needed and valuable role, protecting sailors who are otherwise without protection and raising awareness of issues that have previously gone unreported, unacknowledged and unaddressed by the international community. It has been a great pleasure working with David Hammond and Human Rights at Sea, and this is a partnership that we look forward to maintaining for many years to come.

The issue of maritime piracy can be found wherever ships are at sea, and as one of the first crimes recognized under international law for enforcement and prosecution by individual states, it remains in a class of its own. Likewise the associated abuse of using children to engage in this criminal activity. By working collaboratively with Human Rights at Sea and other like-minded organizations, the Dallaire Initiative will continue to shine a light on this abuse and work towards the day when children used as maritime pirates is a thing of the past.

Thank-you Darin.

The Romeo Dallaire Initiative 


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


HRAS Interview No.25: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

HRAS Interview: Escaping the Tiger, Then Meeting the Crocodile

Thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos cross the border into Thailand each year. They trade poverty at home for the possibility of relative prosperity abroad. A Thai proverb – escaping from the tiger, then meeting the crocodile – describes the fate of many.

Human Rights at Sea spoke to Phil Robertson, on the ground in Thailand for Human Rights Watch, about the pattern of abuse for those forced into slavery in the fishing industry.

Migrant workers coming into Thailand face being debt-bonded in order to get work. What makes them vulnerable to this human rights abuse?

Sometimes they choose to go because they want to support family members back home. Sometimes there’s a sense of adventure. Sometimes it’s out of desperation.

The people coming from Myanmar are from rural families and are often very poor. They have little to no access to cash income. Brokers are offering pay packets that, if these people knew what the situation was in Thailand, they’d recognize as totally unrealistic, but they don’t.

Less than a year ago, we prepared a report about land seizures and human rights abuses in Karen state in Myanmar, which borders Thailand. What we found was land seizures by military groups and local officials, well-connected people. They are literally showing up with land ownership documents issued by local authorities and putting people off land that they have worked on as farmers for generations. When the farmers protest, they get arrested.

The farmers either end up working as day laborers for a pittance or living with relatives, with some of the family members being sent to Thailand to find work and send back money. We interviewed people, actually the children of those that had lost land. They were scratching out a living, barely, by recycling other people’s trash. There’s a lot of familial obligation to provide money to the parents, and so they hear an offer to go down to Bangkok where they’ll receive a much higher salary, and they see the positive aspects of it, they don’t necessarily see the risks.

These are the realities of the migrant universe in Thailand that the authorities are not really touching yet with the reforms that have been implemented so far.

How are workers debt-bonded?

Take for instance a worker on the Thai/Myanmar border working at a local construction site. The recruiter says, “Hey, you can do a lot better than that. Come to Bangkok, I can find you a job: pay you 7000 or 8000 Thai baht a month. You don’t need to pay me any money now, but down there, I’ll arrange the job for you, and I will recoup whatever my costs are for arranging that and moving you down. There’ll be a couple months of deductions, and you’ll be all set. You’ll get a job, and you’ll be in a much better place than you are now.”

And that construction worker says “Well, geez, that sounds really good. What do I need to do?”

How are they then brought across the border into Thailand?

Usually they start with a long walk. Crossing the border is fairly easy, but then the broker will take them one or two days traversing through the jungle to avoid border checkpoints. Then they get to a pre-arranged meeting place where they’re picked up by a truck, usually being driven by either a policeman or the relative of an official who won’t get stopped by police on the way to Bangkok. They are hidden in the back of the vehicle, sometimes packed in like sardines.

Usually there is a mix of people who are going. The truck stops in various different places and drops off workers at different workplaces. For those sent by brokers working for fishing fleets, they end up in a port. They’re poor. They get out of the truck, and they’re surrounded by toughs. They don’t know where they are, they don’t speak the Thai language, they have no documents. There’s really no other options. They just have to get on that boat.

We see that kind of deceptive recruitment connected to brokers, and the way they move people into this country, time and time and time again.

What is Human Rights Watch’s approach to combatting these human rights abuses?

Our focus at Human Rights Watch is pretty much always the same. We investigate. We expose the abuses that we have found after rigorous documentation. Then we work on a change strategy, an advocacy strategy based on our assessment of where the problems are and what needs to happen to solve them.

Sometimes we’ll make recommendations to governments; sometimes to private companies; sometimes to international organizations. It really depends on our assessment of the situation and who the rights abusers are and where the pressure points are to try to stop them.

What is Thailand doing about the problems?

The Thai authorities are doing very little to combat the pattern of debt bondage and foreign worker exploitation. They have decided that the manpower agencies and brokers that bring workers into the country should be regulated. That’s all well and good, but there’s an entire sort of subterranean way of coming into the country that the authorities are not even getting close to touching yet. That whole group of people, that whole network, operates on the “travel now, pay later” system. And far too often, the “pay later” part of that equation involves persons held in what amounts to slavery.

What needs to be done?

The first problem is that there’s no good avenue for the migrant workers to effectively complain about what’s happening to them to officials that is disconnected from those who are taking advantage of them. The situation really calls for an ombudsman with effective powers to investigate, operating with the resources and interpreters to go down to the ground, to really understand the kind of abuses that are taking place and take concrete action.

Our research has shown that when migrant workers are faced with employment problems and complain, whether they go to the local ministry of labor office or their employer, they face immediate retaliation. That keeps them in a state of fear. Facing a difficult situation, facing human rights abuses, they do what any ordinary person with little power would do. They try to escape, to run away. The last thing they want to do is complain.

Ultimately we need to delink migrant worker registration and status from employers. Migrant workers should receive, let’s say, registration directly with the Thai government for four years. They can then take their registration ID card and work wherever they want for as long as they want, and if they don’t like it at that workplace, then they can resign and leave the next day like any other person can, and go find another job.

Do labour source nations, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, have any control over the situation?

What we see in Myanmar, and it’s the same in many different countries around the world, is a lot of corruption in the recruitment process. The manpower companies are being run to earn maximum profit for their owners through very high recruitment fees, and often times the people who own these businesses are relatives of senior officials or relatives of the police – the sort of governing riff-raff that take advantage of connections to take advantage of people trying to seek a better life.

The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, and Population in Myanmar has done a very poor job of effectively regulating recruitment. And it’s not just Myanmar. You can see the same thing in Cambodia. You can see the same thing in Vietnam. In Vietnam, many of these manpower agencies are connected directly to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs.

Bribes are paid at all levels in these labour recruitment operations. Ultimately, the cost of all those illicit payments ends up on the final bill of the worker who’s going overseas. In some cases, workers have paid thousands of dollars to take a job where they are going to be cheated and exploited.

Is anything happening at a regional level?

The region has done very little to protect the rights of migrant workers or look out for their better interests despite the fact that so many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries are dependent on the remittances sent back by migrant workers for the success of their economies.

ASEAN needs an instrument to protect and promote the rights of migrant workers. Currently, there’s a fundamental regulatory failure when looking at the issue of protection of migrant workers and worker rights.

What role do you see the media playing?

I think that media exposés are absolutely critical to make progress on how can we protect the rights of workers in these countries. Those done by The New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, the Guardian and others are excellent. They need to keep coming.

There needs to be more investigative journalism. That’s the real challenge, I think for countries like Australia and the U.S., Canada and Europe that are receiving imports of food and other products. They owe an obligation to the consumers of those products to say where the products are really coming from and under what conditions they’re being produced.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 2010: From the Tiger to the Crocodile Abuse of Migrant Workers in Thailand. Phil is now working on another report due to be published later this year focusing particularly on Thailand’s seafood industry. Human Rights at Sea looks forward to its publication. Thank-you, Phil.

Link to 2010 report: 


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview with Abby McGill: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand


HRAS Interview: Empowering Migrant Workers in Thailand

It is promising that the Thai government and big industry players like Costco are getting involved in the fight against human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry, but there is more work to be done. For Abby McGill, that work focus is on empowering Thailand’s migrant workers.

McGill is responsible for coordinating campaigns around labor exploitation in globally-traded agricultural commodities at the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Her work includes seafood from Thailand, cotton from Uzbekistan, palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia, Cocoa from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and tobacco from Malawi.


What is ILRF’s approach to dealing with labor exploitation?

We have a three tiered philosophy here at ILRF. First is worker empowerment. I partner with organizations on the ground to improve conditions by ensuring that the workers themselves have voice and that there’s democratic workplace principals being instilled in places that ultimately provide goods for Western markets.

The second is government change. We work to ensure that governments in countries that produce goods for global markets have good labor laws and that those laws are enforced. Additionally, we work to ensure that laws in countries like that U.S., or Australia or the E.U., where these goods are ultimately found, also promote good global trade that focuses on rights promotion rather than an extraction model of global commerce.

The last big part of change is industry. Here we try to hold companies accountable for what happens all along their supply chain, not only in the facilities over which they have direct control, and to promote greater transparency and accountability within long, complex global supply chains.


When you talk about the supply chain of companies are you meaning any size company or big multinationals?

We tend to focus on big multinationals, mostly because that’s an area where you can get a lot of change. What we see now in global markets is that the old relationship of somebody produces a good and goes to market to see how much they can get for it has been flipped on its head. The big multinational companies, the Walmarts and Tescos of the world, have cornered the market on retail sales to the extent that they are effectively setting prices for producers. The big purchasers of seafood, for example, at the big seafood expos in Boston, Hong Kong, Brussels dictate prices on the trading floor saying that you have to meet certain price points otherwise we won’t purchase it.

We advocate for a different approach where retailers and the big multinationals make long term strategic partnerships with their suppliers so that the supplier knows that three or four years down the line they’re still going to have demands for this product, that they can create some security for their workers, and that they’re able to convey to their customers, the big multinational brands, what it actually costs to produce this good in a way that has safe and decent working conditions for the workers who produce it.


Why do migrant workers need more empowerment?

There’s three to four million migrant workers in Thailand. Many of them are undocumented. Fewer now that Thailand has made pretty impressive strides in registering migrant workers. However, that registration process itself is quite expensive. Whether you go through the formal channels or informal recruitment channels, workers often have to take on a lot of debt.

Under Thai law migrant workers are bound to their employers. It’s very difficult to leave an employer, even if there’s abuse there, and still remain in the country legally. The incentive is really for workers to keep quiet if there are problems because they arrive in debt, they need to pay it off and they can’t leave their employer and continue to work in the country.


What is ILRF doing in Thailand?

We try to highlight problems like that and try to organize coalitions of organizations to demand for solutions. We partner with an organization on the ground called the Migrant Workers Rights Network which is an organization of migrant workers in Thailand trying to improve conditions.

We have brought together a group of organizations under the name Thai Seafood Working Group. When I started that project in early 2014, it was about a dozen organizations mostly based in the U.S. that we had assembled through other work we’d done, mostly on the child labor coalition in the cotton groups that were interested in human rights.

Now the working group is more than 50 organizations from about a dozen countries that aren’t just human rights organizations. There’s a lot of environmental groups that participate and a lot of seafood groups.

A big focus for us is the lack of freedom of association for migrant workers. Right now they’re forbidden from serving in the leadership of or forming trade unions. They can join already existing unions, but there are so few of those because Thai’s don’t work in the seafood industry. So, in essence, migrant workers are completely unrepresented. It keeps them isolated, it keeps them vulnerable, and it keeps them exploitable.

We fight hard to try and ensure that migrant workers have access to all of the fundamental rights at work in their workplace, including freedom of association.


Do the Walmarts of the world feature in improving practices in the industry?

Walmart has a few different initiatives going on in the Thai seafood sector. When big companies get involved their interventions often involve a lot of certification and auditing, but those aren’t solutions that actually empower the workers themselves. It’s somebody coming from outside to look at what’s happening in the supply chain, not developing the power from within for workers to hold their employers accountable.

There are a lot of industry solutions that are having various impacts. Some good and some not so good but the ultimate judge by what we would measure an effective intervention is does it help the workers themselves to be able to address problems in their workplaces without a third party having to be there.

One of the models that we’re trying to promote not only in seafood but in all commodities is retailers and multinational corporations should have to publish where they get the goods that are produced. They should list names of suppliers. The garment sector has had the biggest success with this. That would be the kind of traceability that I would hope for.


Is it just the shrimp industry that has problems or are there other Thai seafood industries that are of concern?

Thailand is one of the major processors of canned tuna in the world. The Thai fleet itself doesn’t actually catch much tuna. Rather, Thailand is one of the biggest importers of tuna, from countries such as Taiwan or South Korea, and then they export it. So, Thailand becomes a choke point for abuses on the tuna fleets of a lot of different countries.

We encourage the major tuna companies, like Tuna Union, to name their suppliers and to push down to their suppliers the importance of having complete catch certification from the vessel and the processing level so that consumers can know where the tuna in their can ultimately came from.

Another industry is pet food. Thailand’s a huge exporter of pet food to the U.S., Europe and Australia. Pet food is a hundred billion dollar industry across these countries, and a lot of different kinds of proteins go into it. Trash fish definitely goes into it. Other kinds of fish that are caught by Thai vessels go into it. Poultry also goes into it, and there’s horrendous cases of human trafficking coming out of Thailand’s poultry sector.


What is the Thai government achieving?

The Thai government is certainly interested in showing that it has made demonstrable progress on the issues. They have really clamped down a lot on fisheries oversight. Our assessment of those efforts is that they have focused primarily on illegal fishing and much less on the people that are on the boats.

They’ve also made some positive changes to seafood workers. For example there is a temporary provision that migrant workers in the seafood sector can change employers. They have a lot more freedom of movement in that sector which is something that we would hope that they would expand to migrant workers in all sectors.

Where we haven’t seen a lot of progress is on overall labor rights. They haven’t made significant steps towards ensuring that migrant workers are able to form their own labor unions, that they have access to remedy when employers abuse them.

One really disturbing step backwards that we are concerned about is the use of criminal defamation. Not only has Thailand made it hard for migrant workers to report when they have been abused, but they’ve made it more likely that migrant workers will be taken to court for speaking out. They can be charged with criminal defamation if they complain about an employer.

Thai law allows it and Thai prosecutors have taken it forward. The Thai government will say that it’s the Thai judicial system and we don’t want to interfere. We certainly respect that, but the fact that they allow criminal defamation to remain on the books when it’s almost exclusively used against these human rights offenders and human rights cases is unacceptable. They need to repeal criminal defamation immediately.


Have you been to Thailand and spoken with the foreign workers?

I’ve been to Thailand on a number of occasions, and I have spoken with workers every time. These workers are really far from home, they often don’t speak Thai very well, so they don’t have a lot of resources to be able to navigate Thai legal systems. They’re working in a 3D job: a dangerous, dirty and demeaning job. Most of them don’t have a lot of education, so there’s a lot of barriers to them organizing unions. The way that Thai law stacks the books against them in favor of the employers just makes it that much harder.

I am constantly in awe of our partners on the ground who stand up, and who speak out, and who are fighting for improved conditions. I think that what they have going for them is that they’re a pretty tight knit community. They tend to live all together, they look out for each other, and their immediate instinct when things are wrong is to come together and try to make things right.

However, I think that is incumbent on those in the international community who are consuming the goods that these workers produce to do everything within our power to ensure that we are supporting those efforts.


Do the men out on the fishing boats have that sense of community?

They are much more isolated, so that is harder for them. That’s why we see some of the really most egregious problems happening particularly on long haul vessels. At least for short haul vessels, those that only go out for maybe a day or a few fays at most, they largely live in the fishing communities that surround their ports. There is some sort of camaraderie there. The long haul vessels really, really are problematic.

We have a project that’s funded by USAID to try and break a little bit of that isolation. There has been a push to get satellite technology on board vessels to better document catches. A lot of that involves satellite monitoring of vessels through VMS, AIS, and other kinds of vessel monitoring systems.

We’re trying to ensure that those systems aren’t used just to monitor the fish. We’d like to see them used to get greater insight into what’s happening with the workers on those vessels and to document working conditions. We need to make sure that as the illegal fishing piece of it moves forward the human rights piece of it isn’t out of the equation, that the two are developing side by side.


What’s on your agenda for this year?

We are focusing on elimination of criminal defamation and promoting greater freedom of association rights for migrant workers.

Industry wide I think there’s some kind of interesting things going on. Greenpeace released a report at the very end of last year on the Thai fishing fleet that has prompted Nestle, a big global brand, to try and ban the practice of transshipment, a practice that, from our perspective, can lead to workers being trapped out at sea for very long periods of time.

For a long time industry has pushed back to say that transhipment is simply a part of doing business in the seafood sector given the current stocks of fish, but if Nestle can say that it’s going to ban transhipment it seems that other companies should be able to do it too. I think we’re going to be pushing really hard on this to ensure greater catch accountability and transparency.

Also, the Thai government is working with the International Labor Organization and with other actors to try to improve their labor oversight within the fishing sector. We’re going to continue to push to ensure that the work includes migrant worker empowerment.

Thank-you Abby.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview with Dr Pengfei Zhang – Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

Chinese Seafarers: An Invisible Group

In recent years, China has emerged as a world leader in shipbuilding, shipowning and seafarer-supply. Why is it then that Chinese seafarers remain an invisible group as far as many of the nation’s legal protections are concerned?

pengfei-photoDr Pengfei Zhang, academic, lawyer and former master mariner completed his PhD thesis on the barriers Chinese seafarers face in achieving the same level of remuneration and rights as inscribed in some international standards. His subsequent book Seafarers’ Rights in China: Restructuring in Legislation and Practice under the MLC 2006 was published by Springer last year.

HRAS spoke to Pengfei about how the latest development of seafarers’ rights in China under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC).

How did you first get started in seafarer rights?

As a seafarer working on board international merchant ships for more than eight years, I had myself experienced unfair treatment quite often. This included low wages, long working hours, poor working and living conditions and exploitation by manning agencies.

In 2009, I started to teach maritime courses in Shanghai Maritime University. Before that, I worked as a maritime lawyer and helped many Chinese seafarers involved in maritime labour disputes. This helped me to better understand the problems and challenges of seafarers. In 2012, when my career in China was growing well, I made a decision to do my PhD in London and started my academic research on seafarers’ rights.

There were several reasons for that. The most important one was that I had seen the big picture, not just for China, but for the whole world. Shipping is very important, and seafarers are very important, but research on seafarers is relatively sparse, in particular in China. I have the right background, and I am the right person to do this, and I believe the most valuable and meaningful thing for me is to do research on this topic. I am sure that I can make unique contribution.


book-front-pageWhat was the aim of your research?

The overall objective of the research was to critically investigate the conditions of seafarers’ rights in China in legislation and practice; in particular, the restructuring process under the impact of the MLC. Since its entry into force in August 2013, significant changes have taken place in the international maritime industry, less so in China. The MLC entered into force in China in November 2016 after being ratified in 2015.

Although seafarer protection in China has improved significantly in the lead-up to this, there are still many serious problems. Seafarers are working at sea, out of the sight of most people on land. As a result, although Chinese seafarers have played an increasingly important role in the international maritime industry, they tend to be an invisible group compared with most workers on land.


What improvements have been made?

The major improvements resulting from the adoption of the MLC relate to seafarers’ pre-employment registration, physical examinations, training and recruitment services. The major reason for this appears to be that the Chinese maritime community has attached great importance to seafarers’ training, qualification and competency. These aspects are closely associated with the export of seafarers, the development of the Chinese maritime industry and increased tax revenue.


Employment contracts continue to be a problem. Why?

In practice, a number of problems exist that prevent Chinese seafarers from accessing their legal employment entitlements. First of all, many Chinese seafarers have trouble accessing employment opportunities, in particular those with lower ranks, such as ratings and junior officers.

According to the MLC, there should be a public recruitment system available for seafarers to ensure that they have access to an efficient and well-regulated recruitment service. China’s Employment Promotion Law also states that local governments shall establish public employment service institutions that provide labourers with free recruitment services.

But, despite the rapid growth in the economy, China has not yet established an effective public employment system, and in the maritime labour market, many recruitment and placement businesses are controlled by private manning agencies or ship management companies. Many Chinese seafarers have to pay large sums of money for employment opportunities, and they become targets for exploitation.


How are they exploited?

As in many other maritime nations, the nature of seafarers’ work may easily subject them to exploitation by unscrupulous shipowners, operators and manning agencies. For example, many seafarers do not have an employment contract. It is even the case that some ships maintain two separate sets of seafarer employment contracts, one real and one false, with the false one just for port state control (PSC) inspections.

Fieldwork I conducted revealed that even some major state-owned Chinese shipping companies were practising this double book-keeping aimed at evading PSC inspection.

Secondly, compared with seafarers in many countries, the wages of Chinese seafarers are still very low. Delayed or unpaid wages and substandard working and living conditions are still very common, in particular when the shipping market is poor.

As there is no relevant regulation of seafarers’ annual leave in China, many Chinese seafarers tend to have a longer annual contract and cannot be repatriated in a timely manner even when they have completed their agreed terms. Furthermore, when labour disputes arise, on many occasions seafarers cannot access effective and efficient legal assistance and remedies.

These may be common problems experienced by seafarers worldwide, but they have a bigger impact on Chinese seafarers.


What special issues do Chinese seafarers face?

Unlike shipping businesses which make a direct profit for society, seafarers appear to be less important than the ships on which they serve. China, despite its impressive economic performance in the last several decades, remains a developing country with relatively limited resources allocated for public service. While the Chinese government places overriding emphasis on economic development, the importance of seafarers has been placed second to fleet construction, which seems to attract greater attention.

Chinese seafarers have special profile, and they are also facing some unique problems and challenges, such as the Chinese maritime industry, Chinese maritime labour market, Chinese seafarers’ special role as temporary migrant workers, in their families and society, their difficulty in rejoining family life and society and their social status changes across time.

Furthermore, China has a very large population that includes workers from various trades and industries. Compared with builders, platelayers and miners, seafarers are only a small group, the total number of which is not sufficient to draw special attention.


Do labour unions have any impact on Chinese seafarers’ working conditions?

The CSCU is the national industrial union of Chinese seafarers and construction workers that is affiliated to the ACFTU. At an operational level, it has developed a clear strategy to support seafarers, in particular those employed in the foreign sector. In the past, the CSCU has made great effort in protecting and promoting seafarers rights and benefits, for example, in the adoption process of Seafarers’ Regulation, as explained in the Book.

However, the protection provided by the CSCU is far from satisfactory and cannot meet the expectation of Chinese seafarers. On many occasions, it appears to be quite weak and passive and has very limited influence at the international stage. Therefore, it is not able to provide effective and efficient assistance and protection for Chinese seafarers when they encounter difficulties at foreign ports.

In addition, with an increasing number of Chinese seafarers employed by foreign shipowners, the seafarers need the union to fight for their interests and benefits. However, dealing with international affairs requires special skills (including language skills) and many other competencies, which are lacking among many union officers.

There is a serious lack of seafarers’ participation in the process of “collective consultation”. The obviously unequal bargaining power between individual seafarers and maritime employers makes it indisputable that collective bargaining is an essential element of seafarers’ rights. However, although a collective contract has been drafted and proposed by trade union, it is actually absent in practice.


What changes would you like to see enacted to improve conditions for Chinese seafarers?

The major challenges to future improvement come from government authorities, the practices of the maritime industry as well as from Chinese seafarers themselves.

Since the adoption of MLC, China’s government has put considerable effort into complying with the Convention, and many changes have taken place. However, there are still significant gaps between Chinese seafarers’ existing rights and desired rights particularly regard to wages, working and living conditions, collective bargaining agreements and seafarers’ social security.

Adoption of the China’s Seafarers Act is of key importance to improve Chinese seafarers’ rights, as well as to the full implementation of the MLC. The Act has been discussed and debated for two decades, but not much progress has been made so far. The government is therefore advised to take more concrete and efficient measures to speed up the legislation process.

Furthermore, the government departments specialising in maritime affairs need to take on more responsibility with regard to seafarers’ rights, in particular flag state inspections.

A more independent, pragmatic and effective seafarers’ union should be established specially for Chinese seafarers.

It is crucial to promote best practice in the maritime industry by implementing corporate social responsibility (CSR) and maintaining a sustainable maritime labour force. The implementation of CSR can attract high-quality talent, enhance a company’s image and eventually improve its marketing performance.

A skilled, loyal and well-motivated seafarer can reduce operating costs by increasing efficiency and safety and by protecting the employer’s investment in vessels and equipment. In contrast, stress, fatigue and complaints can lead to reduced performance. This is usually the reason why incidents that cause environmental damage, loss of life and loss of property occur.

It is therefore becoming more commonly accepted that voluntary CSR should be embedded into maritime business. Respecting seafarers’ rights has become a strategy with the reward of more profit than is produced by ignoring such responsibilities


Can Chinese seafarers take action to defend and expand their rights?

According to Chinese law Chinese workers do have rights to defend and expand their rights. However, due to the special characteristics of seafaring labour, the same as in any other countries, seafarers in China may find it is difficult to realize their rights on many occasions. For example, seafarers in China are entitled to participate in the process of Chinese labour law-making. However, in practice, it is very difficult for them to deliver their views and be involved in decision-making. This is especially because of the lack of a strong and effective seafarers’ trade union in China.

The issue is particularly important to seafarers, because their unique employment conditions are not familiar to most law-makers. Compared with the employment conditions of construction workers and miners, which have been addressed to some extent in several major labour laws, seafarers’ in-employment conditions have never attracted much concern in Chinese labour law-making.

Chinese seafarers should be more pro-active, to the extent that this is possible in domestic Chinese affairs, and participate more effectively and effectively in the legislative process in China. Under the impact of the MLC, China has started to promote tripartite negotiation platforms, and seafarers are encouraged to take part in policy-making and collective bargaining activities. There are many opportunities for Chinese seafarers to become involved and to deliver their message more clearly and loudly.


What reaction has there been to the book?

The book has provoked significant reaction in many sectors, including academic institutions, shipowners, ship management sectors, manning agencies and in particular seafarers. After publishing, I posted information about the book through Chinese social media and the blog has been forwarded more than 10,000 times. I have received letters and messages asking about the book, and some Chinese seafarers continue to share with me about their experiences.


What are you working on next?

I am doing a research for the Seafarers’ Trust on seafarers’ port welfare in China; not just Chinese seafarers but seafarers of any nationality who visit China’ ports. Meanwhile, we are editing another book: The Chinese Seafarers: understanding the largest maritime workforce in the world which will be published by Springer in the second half of 2017.

Thank-you Pengfei. HRAS looks forward to hearing about your progress in the future.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:


The HRAS Interview: Denise Krepp U.S. ship recycling lobbyist

denise-kreppHRAS Interview Denise Krepp

Ship Recycling: If the E.U. can do it, why not the U.S.?

U.S. ship recycling lobbyist, Denise Krepp, says the U.S. is keeping a close eye on the progressive steps that the European Union is taking on ship recycling. The attitude of many in the industry is, if the E.U. can do it, why can’t the U.S.?

Krepp, a former U.S. Coast Guard lawyer, is the registered U.S. lobbyist for EMR USA, a U.S. ship recycling company that has facilities in Louisiana and Texas. She spoke to HRAS about legislative developments underway in the U.S.


Why is the U.S. taking an interest in the E.U.’s attempt to ensure that shipowners use ship recycling yards that meet specific standards for worker and environmental protection?

U.S. ship recyclers are encouraging the U.S. government to support the E.U. proposal to charge a fee for all vessels coming into E.U. ports that will be paid back to shipowners if they recycle their vessels in an E.U.-certified facility.

We understand that the E.U. is trying to level the playing field, and if the E.U. does impose a fee on vessels coming into its ports, it will have a ripple effect globally. It will force others to change, which is a positive thing.

The Hong Kong Convention is not really going anywhere, and, in any case, it doesn’t prevent beaching. From the U.S. ship recycling perspective, our companies have invested a lot of money in their facilities because they want to protect the environment and they want to protect workers. If they’re at a gold standard, which they believe they are, why should others be viewed at the same level when they haven’t sunk the same costs in?


U.S. ship recyclers have applied to be certified by the European Union. Is their focus on the E.U. a case of self-interest?

That is part of it. If a U.S. government vessel is to be recycled, then yes, they believe it should be recycled by U.S. workers. A second part, though, is the reason I’ve been advocating in Washington, and that is to remind people that in addition to looking at their carbon footprint, their emissions and their ballast water, they must also remember what happens to their ships at the end of the day.

U.S. workers are heavily regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. We have safety training. We have safety equipment. We have regulations to make sure that the environment is protected.

We want our vessels to be dismantled in facilities where workers are protected. Facilities in the U.S. have sunk the necessary costs into their business, because they believe it’s important.

When you look to see what’s going on in other places, there’s a stark difference, and we need to recognize that everybody has a role to play in the future of the industry. When I noticed recently that a Norwegian hedge fund was assessing ship recycling standards before making investments, I realized just how closely the non-maritime world is looking at this situation and saying, “We should all be concerned about this.”


What is currently happening to U.S. government vessels that are recycled?

Ship recycling in the U.S. is a mess. The Federal Property and Administrative Service Act of 1949 states that the Maritime Administration (MARAD) should serve as the government’s disposal agent for obsolete government vessels that are over 1,500 gross tons. Sadly, the General Services Administration (GSA) ignores the act and instead auctions off vessels haphazardly.

As a result the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the state maritime schools and the thousands of maritime historical organizations throughout the country suffer because, when MARAD disposes of vessels, these entities receive a portion of the proceeds. When GSA usurps the process, none of these educational entities receives the funding for which they are eligible under federal law.


The Ships to Be Recycled in the States (STORIS) Act was introduced in the 2015-2016 cycle of Congress. What does it call for?

The STORIS Act gets its name from the former Coast Guard Cutter Storis, which was dismantled in Mexico in 2013 through a GSA contract, in violation of the current law.

People are frustrated by that. They’re very frustrated by that, so Congress wanted to remind the U.S. government that its vessels should stay in the United States. They wanted to make sure that MARAD, which by law already has the authority to be the disposal agent, is actually the disposal agent, and that other agencies recognize that.

The STORIS Act strengthens oversight of MARAD’s domestic ship recycling program and promotes transparency by requiring reports from the agency and an audit by the Government Accountability Office. MARAD receives millions of dollars in federal funding but currently does not disclose how the money is spent or how the agency awards contracts.

The other interesting part of this legislation is that the government is supposed to come up with a list of vessels that are going to be declaring obsolete. That is expected to include everything from MARAD vessels to vessels owned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many government agencies own vessels, and Congress wants to make sure all of these vessels are recycled in the United States. It has directed MARAD to come up with a list, working with all the government agencies, of all the vessels, and then come up with a plan for how all these vessels are going to be disposed of.


Is there any doubt that the Act will be passed?

The National Defense Authorization Act has been passed by Congress every year for over 50 years now, every year. Chairman Thornberry, who’s Chair of House Armed Services, and Chairman McKeon from the Senate have both been very forthright in saying they’re not going to be the ones that don’t pass this legislation. They want the trend to continue.


Parts of the STORIS Act were included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017. The full bill will be voted on in both the House and the Senate and then passed up to the new President for final authorization. What then?

We were focusing on government vessels this Congress, and then commercial vessels will be the focus for next Congress. The push will be to ensure that any vessel that is financed, subsidized, or chartered by the U.S. government is recycled in the United States.

When I’m talking about chartering, I’m talking about the Department of Defense charters of foreign-build vessels. They reflag them into the U.S. fleet, and then they charter them. In a couple of instances, they have specifically named these vessels after U.S. Medal of Honor recipients, and then they’ve turned around and let them be dismantled in foreign facilities. It’s the position of the U.S. recyclers that if you’re going to name a vessel after a man who has died in service of his country, then the vessel should be recycled by U.S. workers who have made the investment and are keeping the environment clean, not in a foreign facility that’s not operating at the same level.

At present, there are only 83 blue water vessels left sailing under the U.S. flag, of which 60 participate in the Maritime Security Program. Each one of these 60 vessels receives $3.1 million per year to participate, so the argument is that if the U.S. government is giving a vessel owner $3.1 million per year for up to 25 years, then those vessels should be recycled in the U.S.


Does the legislation cover human rights issues?

No, not yet. Not yet, but next Congress we’re going to be talking about it. We’d like to talk about some of the corporate social responsibility issues that have been raised in the E.U.

It’s companies’ corporate social responsibility to make sure that their vessels are dismantled with proper respect for human rights at an environmentally friendly facility. We’ll be saying to Congress and to others, “Well, if the E.U., why can’t the U.S.?”


Can you tell us about EMR’s Brownsville yard located in the poorest county of the U.S.?

Firstly, it’s clean. It’s laid out with concrete; there is no beaching, and the company prides itself on providing a livable wage for its workers. It also makes sure that its workers have what they need to be productive and comfortable. Brownsville, Texas, is really hot, and as one example of the company’s efforts to care for its workers, it has developed an air conditioned suit that workers wear when they are out in the heat of the day.

The company is also very respectful about preserving the history of the naval vessels that it recycles. Parts from some of the ships they are being recycling at present are going to be donated to museums.

Additionally, in the United States, we have a Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Program so that veterans can share their memories about these ships.

When EMR was awarded the contract for recycling the Independence, an aircraft carrier that participated in the Vietnam War, we received an email from a woman who said that three generations of her family had served on the vessel. EMR has planned a ceremony prior to the vessel’s dismantlement that will allow veterans one last look at the ship they served on for so many years.

Thank-you Denise.


Important Note. The subject matter and content of all ‘HRAS Interviews’ represents the views of the interviewee only; they do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or charitable objectives of Human Rights at Sea. In the interests of continuing objective, free, fair and open debate on all topics which have a bearing upon, or closely relate to the subject of human rights in the maritime environment, Human Rights at Sea reviews all submissions to the HRAS Interview site and retains sole discretion whether or not to publish the contents. Human Rights at Sea is committed to transparent and free dialogue independent of all political, religious or other perspectives held institutionally, corporately or individually.  For further information:








The HRAS Interview: Dr. Lynn Simpson – Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts – Part 3/3

Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts [Part 3/3]


Veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson is a veteran of Australia’s live export trade and a veteran of Red Sea and Persian Gulf voyages delivering sheep and cattle to the Middle East. She speaks to HRAS about her experiences sailing with a mix of cultures on board through regions where their countrymen were at war.

What cultural issues were there with a mix of nationalities on board the livestock carriers you worked on?

It used to be quite tricky sometimes if you had a Muslim crew and we would trade with a country like Israel. There would be Palestinians on board who obviously had a deep-seated problem with stepping on what is considered Israeli soil. I had Palestinian officers who were lovely, they were really rational, they would speak to the Israelis who’d come on board for work, and they would be very professional. But you wouldn’t get them to step off the gangway; no way.

We might be on a voyage where we go to Saudi on the way up the Red Sea and then we go into Israel. So you go from the extreme of Saudi’s Muslim culture to Israel. I was a spectator, but I’d try to calm them down, because they get fired up. Saudi is interesting because it doesn’t seem to have offered much support to the Palestinians, in the Palestinian’s view. They were often angry in Saudi about that, and then we’d get to Israel and they’d be angry about Israel. Once you get them out to sea again, everything was fine.

We’d even been boarded by the Israeli defence force a couple of times. The captain had to stay on the bridge. The chief officer had to stay in the engine control room, an armed guard on each of them, and the rest of us, about 80, were bunched up in the forecastle; three guys with I think M16s pointed at us in the 43 degree heat.

They held us there for a couple of hours, and they taunted us. “Sit down!  Stand up!  Sit down!  Stand up!  Sit down!  Stand up!” You’re sitting on a scalding hot steel deck. They eventually took us single file into the accommodation and sat us all down on the floor in a room, taking us out one by one to interrogate us – just intimidatory tactics. It not a normal occurrence but, it’s happened more than once. It’s a complete nuisance and welfare risk when you have tens of thousands of animals to care for.


Did you have other encounters with the military?

We were going through the straits of Hormuz one day in 2003, during the second Gulf war, and we had lots of military aircraft and warships around. One time I had a chopper hovering at the side of the ship, watching me kill sheep, only metres away. I still remember the stunned expressions on the pilots’ faces. I don’t know how many they’d watch me kill. I think I had about 20 that I had to dispose of because they were considered diseased with “scabby mouth” and we needed to get rid of them before our first port.

I looked up and saw them, but I couldn’t see any insignias on the chopper, so I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t care. I could see the guns pointing at me, and I just disappeared into the ship.

Working in a war zone is always a depressing and potentially dangerous thing. As a seafarer, you don’t always know where you’re ship’s going to go, you sign up to the ship, you sign up to go wherever it goes.


Sometimes, cultural differences led to victimization on board. What was your experience of this?

Actually, I didn’t realise how quickly my veterinary skills would get sidelined a little bit. I needed to know more about culture, religion and politics to be able to get my job done properly through the day. So, for example, I had to learn all about the Indians essentially giving Bangladesh independence, but from a Bangladeshi point of view, they just gave them swamplands.

Then there’s the cast system, and the Bangladeshis are very submissive to the Indians. One company I worked for had Indian officers and Bangladeshi crew, and at one stage we had a Pakistani captain. The three just didn’t mix, and it was just awful, to the point that I could see very clearly that the Bangladeshis were all tremendously miserable.

On some voyages, we’d be going through the Persian Gulf in the middle of summer, 55 degrees, humidity in the high 80s, low 90s and this one captain, turned the air-conditioning off in the accommodation. It was an old car carrier, so, it was just one long accommodation space, but he turned the air conditioning off from where the officers’ space stopped and where the crew started.

Not only did the crew have to work down on decks which were stinking hot and full of ammonia gas and CO2 all day, but because the animals generate their own heat there was added heat. The crew would come up for their so-called respite at the end of the day, and there was no air conditioning. Some slept on open decks under the stars, still hot, but sometimes they caught a breeze.


Why did the captain do that?

Because he was a jerk.  He was just a complete jerk.

I think the captains are the linchpin to welfare at sea. If you’ve got a good captain who’s got a decent sense of a moral compass, you’ll find the crew are generally looked after and much happier and easier to work with. You get a better outcome for the ship and the company and the animals. If you’ve got a captain that’s for some reason a pain in the neck or a power-tripper, it can be quite difficult.

The captains who caused the greatest difficulty to management and animal welfare were generally relief captains who did not understand how different a livestock carrier is to manage compared to a non-live cargo. The stress levels are through the roof for them, and it was rare that they would return: thankfully.

They were usually so stressed they made life difficult for both the crew and the livestock. If they had the sense to put their pride aside and take advice from others on board, they coped, but were a rare breed, and are to be commended.

The experienced and competent senior officers on a livestock ship are cool under pressure, respect input from people with differing training and expertise and would likely find a “normal” ship boring. I’ve sailed with and learnt so much from some great seafarers.

I’ll always be grateful to them.


How did conflict at home affect crews?

On most of our ships, we didn’t have internet access personally, so communication with home was a difficult thing. Satellite phones are way too expensive for crew to use too often, but when we pass close to land or join the convoy to go into the Suez Canal, there’s a window of connectivity, and everyone’s phones go crazy. Usually news from home brings on a mixture of smiles and melancholy.

One time, there was a lot of Pakistanis on the phone for the whole canal transit, a lot of worried faces, and as we came out of Port Said one of our older crew members went down the gangway and off the ship into a small pilot boat. A few people waved him goodbye. One of the crew members told me: “He’s going home. The Pakistani government has bombed our village.”  Most of the crew’s houses had been bombed, 80 percent were either destroyed or wrecked in some form.

The man taken off the ship’s entire family had been killed, and no one had the heart to tell him; they apparently just told him his wife was sick in hospital. Then we had to forget our land lives, or deaths and continue to tend the animals. There is no option to slow down and grieve on a live export ship.


What impact did cultural difference have on shore time?

When crew go into port in different countries, especially westernised countries, if they’re associated somehow with the live export ships, there’s every chance that they’ll be vilified and possibly verbally attacked about animal welfare issues. But the converse side to that is a lot of them don’t get shore leave and if they do, it’s only for an hour or two. So the fact that they’re exploited to the level that they get bugger all short leave protects them from being vilified by people who know what’s happening to animals as a result of the trade, but don’t understand the physical and personal sacrifices these men make everyday of their contracts to provide care for the animals. The crew don’t understand why they are being cursed at, I tell tem when they ask me that people don’t get the real facts, don’t take it personally, ignore them. I know this well, as this happens to me too, even to this day.

I was teaching quite a few of the crew English, just casually on deck every day, in return they would teach me some Pashtun or Arabic. I’d have a few of them come up to me and go, “Oh, doctor, doctor, I have this word. Can you please explain the meaning and how to say it properly?” and they’d just give me a little piece of paper. Each day I’d have a discussion with them, and they wanted to practice their English. It was nice.

At one stage, one of the loveliest captains awkwardly called me to his office, and he says, “Can you please stop teaching them English?” and I’m like, “Yeah, okay. Why?” and he says, “Because we’ve had too many crew jump ship and leave.” I said: “Oh, okay. I didn’t put that into their head. They weren’t asking me, “Where is the train station?” It was an awkward situation and conversation to have because so many of them were jumping ship in Fremantle, Australia. After that, they didn’t get shore leave in Fremantle.

Thank-you Lynn.



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