In August 2015, ITF Australia coordinator, and fourth-generation seafarer, Dean Summers swum the English Channel to raise money for a charity that supports seafarers. HRAS spoke to him after this marathon effort to find out why he dedicates his life to seafarers’ well-being.
HRAS: What inspired you to swim the Channel?
It’s this strong emotional link to the seafaring fraternity that drives me in my career and my personal life. It’s a very natural fit to dedicate the efforts of the Channel swim towards the world’s 1.3 million seafarers, many of whom will traverse the Channel at some point in their lives. Theirs is a tough, lonely and thankless job, and they deserve more from a world that relies completely on their work.
HRAS: What is your role at ITF?
I am the Australian national coordinator for the FOC (flag of convenience) Campaign. We’ve got about 20 coordinators around the world, strategically placed in countries that are active and have some capacity for leverage in the FOC Campaign. The campaign protects the rights and looks after seafarers that sail under flags of convenience.
A flag of convenience is a way of registering a ship in a country that is prepared to prostitute their flag to get away from all sorts of regulatory costs, taxes, unions, and other expenses.
Some of those places are war-torn. They don’t know or care about the maritime industry, and they are so divorced from it that it’s a ridiculous situation. Mongolia is a case in point. It doesn’t have any coast at all.
My job is to coordinate the efforts of union and others, including inspectors, to protect the rights of those seafarers. We’ve got three full-time inspectors in Australia, and around the world they join about 140 full-time inspectors.
We try to encourage shipowners who go with the flags of convenience to have industrial agreements with us, and we are successful with about 40-50 percent of the world’s fleet. When they do, we have the authority and the right to police those agreements.
HRAS: What do the agreements achieve?
One of the main agreements is called a total crew cost agreement which says there is a minimum wage for these seafarers, a maximum amount of time they can spend on board and a whole raft of other things about compensation rights at sea. It’s a pretty heavy international document.
From time to time, we go on board where we think there may be some problems or where we answer complaints from crews. If they have an agreement and they’ve been underpaying, then we’ve got legal right to recourse to have wages paid back.
There’s a lot of other issues as well. It’s not just wages – it’s if they spend over nine months at sea, we think nine months is a maximum; if they have enough food. We had a dramatic case in Australia recently where crew members were pretty well starved.
We police the agreements, and last year we were able to return just under US$60 million in wages to seafarers.
HRAS: How does your role relate to port state control activities?
Australia’s port state control, AMSA, isn’t party to the agreements. AMSA is very new to the game of looking after seafarers’ rights. AMSA, like all countries’ port state control, look at ship safety and the requirements of international conventions. It wasn’t until the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) came in just last year that they were able to look at seafarers’ wages and rights, and even then it is a little less than what we do.
HRAS: What role do the agreements play in light of the MLC?
There is still a very big role for the ITF. The MLC picks up a lot of human rights. Before the MLC came in, there was no focus. Seafarers just didn’t have the right to natural justice like everybody else.
So the MLC saw that seafarers should have access to health if they are sick. Imagine that.
It took until 2014 before they got the right that they shouldn’t have to stay on board ships any longer than 12 months – we say it should be nine months.
For the fundamental right to get paid, to have clean bedding and natural light, and other basic things, seafarers have had to wait until 2014, and even now, that’s not picked up in every country around the world.
We absolutely support the MLC, but for instance it doesn’t mention, and there’s no convention that says, that seafarers should be paid more than zero. There is no minimum wage for seafarers. We think seafarers should be paid, and we think they shouldn’t be paid according to race or colour or if they are a woman or a man.
We think they should be paid a decent salary, otherwise shipowners will just keep on playing off the races: “We pay Chinese less, let’s employ Chinese”. That is a pretty disgusting way to choose your employees.
HRAS: What human rights transgressions have you seen?
We’ve all got war stories. I’ve been a coordinator for more than 15 years, and some of the things you see in Australian ports, the public would never image could happen.
Lately it seems that the issues are stemming back to the attitudes of some Korean officers and Korean shipping companies. In one case, they didn’t feed their crew. They had the food on board, but the captain didn’t think they deserved to be fed.
I’ve seen this before in Newcastle on a wheat ship. The captain told me outright that he would refuse to take on free water in Australian ports to punish his crew. He didn’t pay them. He didn’t feed them, and he didn’t give them fresh water.
The crew were Burmese. The Burmese can’t complain, because they’d suffer consequences from the Burmese military regime when they got back home. Who have they got to talk to? They know not to trust authority. They don’t go to port state control like AMSA, because they are authority figures. AMSA is very good, and they do an excellent job, but seafarers from developing nations know not to trust authority.
HRAS: How are the Burmese exploited?
In extreme cases they are slaves – slaves with a chance of drowning.
We’ve been doing a lot of work in Burma. There’s a fledgling union there, and we are trying to give them as much support as they ask for. Burmese seafarers have to pay 15 percent of their projected wages to a dodgy manning agent – they’re all dodgy, all of them. If they can’t, which most of them can’t, they have to give them the documents and deeds to the family farm and house.
Then they go away, and they’re told they are going to get a good job on a ship for a year. They end up getting sent to the fishing ships where they get bad wages and terrible treatment. Shipping is bad, but the fishing industry has dodged the MLC.
HRAS: Do you get a lot of cases of missing seafarers?
We get a lot of cases where people are reported missing over the side of ships. The insurance companies immediately say that it was suicide: “We don’t have to do anything about it, end of case.” The flag state investigates: “There’s no evidence. We’re not going to put any effort into this. We don’t have to, end of case.”
HRAS: What about the so-called “death ship” Sage Sagittarius?
That’s the extreme – three murders, but the flag of convenience system in effect can let people get away with murder, because there is no requirement for an effective inspection regime or an inquiry. There was not going to be any sort of investigation until the ITF in Australia kicked up about the first fatality on board the Sage Sagittarius. That was in international waters, but we made such a noise about it that the Australian federal police were positioned. They had to investigate, and when they started to investigate, immediately after, the second very suspicious death occurred.
The guy was koshed on the back of the head in the engineroom. So they had to investigate, and we really put a lot of pressure on. The third death was in a Japanese port, a Japanese national. Because it was a Panamanian-flagged ship, Panama investigated, and that really shows the problems with the flag of convenience system.
Panama sent one investigator out to Japan, and the evidence given in the coronial inquest said that he just came into the office and no one really spoke to him. The Japanese didn’t know that there were two prior deaths on board, they say. So, there is just this lack of responsibility and accountability under the flag of convenience system.
HRAS: How involved have you been with the Sage Sagittarius case?
I’ve been involved from the very first minute. In fact, we understand from all the coronial evidence that the chief cook told the captain that he was going to contact me when he came to Australia unless he stopped beating up the mess man. The chief cook then went missing immediately after saying that.
HRAS: What has come out of the Sage Sagittarius case?
I made the call on the Four Corners program for a Senate Inquiry into the impact of the flag of convenience system in Australia. It comes at a time when the Australian federal government is intent on abolishing any form of support for a national industry, so no encouragement for people to employ Australian seafarers; no encouragement for people to invest or trade on the Australian coast and the abolishment of cabotage by regulation. This is a dangerous thing.
Shippers and others say it’s cheaper. Well, exactly how much cheaper does that work out? We want the senate enquire to have a look at that. We want to have a look at where we are 23 years down the track following the “Ships of Shame” report that Peter Morris put up. That changed the whole world’s attitude towards shipping. Ships have changed since then, but the way they treat seafarers hasn’t, and the counsel assisting the coroner in the Sage Sagittarius case made that very point. Little seems to have changed to the plight of seafarers in the last 23 years. So we want to see where we are with that as well.
The Senate Inquiry has to report back by the first sitting in 2016, and the Senator who is chairing the committee is Glenn Sterle. We are working closely with him and his office.
HRAS: Why is the Senate Inquiry important?
It’s a really important thing, because it’s one thing just carrying cargoes, but what about our high consequence, dangerous cargoes? What about our trade in ammonium nitrate which has a huge security impact? Why don’t we treat our national shipping industry like the Americans, for example, with the Jones Act, and so we’ve asked the American administration to provide us with some witnesses to come and talk to the Senate to tell us to acknowledge that they treat seafarers as part of their national security program.
Yes, they are more expensive, but it’s worthwhile. The army costs money; the navy and the air force cost money, so maybe the merchant marine should cost money. Maybe the merchant marine should also be considered part of the national security framework. They are going to have to be, because as soon as we get one explosion in a port, one possible terrorist incident, then we’ll be screaming: How come these ships are flagged in Monrovia and using exploited Burmese crew.
It’ll be too late then, so we want to blow the whistle on this before it happens. We don’t expect this government to do very much about it, but we want to mark the spot. It’s an important thing for the public to understand.
HRAS: How is the ITF involved with the Senate Inquiry?
We are putting a lot of effort in at the ITF internationally and in Australia about the Senate Inquiry. We want a lot of press around it; we want people to take away important information about the findings.
The terms of reference are very broad, but they are all dealing with the impact of a bad shipping registration on a country that has so much to defend. We’ve got to defend our environment. We’ve got to defend our national security, and we’ve got to defend our jobs as well, so there is something in it for everybody.
A link to the Four Corners program on Sage Sagittarius:
A link to the Ships of Shame report:
Links to white lists: