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.

HUMAN RIGHTS AT SEA HOME PAGE 

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: enquiries@humanrightsatsea.org.

 

 

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: https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/02/23/tiger-crocodile/abuse-migrant-workers-thailand 

HUMAN RIGHTS AT SEA HOME PAGE 

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: enquiries@humanrightsatsea.org.

 

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

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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.

HUMAN RIGHTS AT SEA HOME PAGE 

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: enquiries@humanrightsatsea.org.

 

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.

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The HRAS Interview: Steve Trent, Co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF)

Steve Trent

Over fishing and Commonplace Violence in Thailand

“In all my experience, over two decades, I cannot think of situations that I’ve seen where extreme violence has been as commonplace as it is in Thailand,” says Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), talking about Thailand’s seafood industry.

It’s an industry that he says stands out globally for its environmental and human rights abuses, and one, therefore, that if turned around, could set a valuable example for positive change across a wide range of industries throughout the world.

Trent points out that one United Nations survey found that 59 percent of seafarers surveyed had witnessed the murder of a crew member.

“All too often, vulnerable people have been trafficked on to the vessels, and many of them are actually being used as slaves. There’s no intention of paying them and no intention of releasing them. They are slaves in every sense of the word.”

Myo Min Naing, 21, is one victim in thousands. He was promised a good job with overtime pay at a pineapple factory in Thailand before being trafficked into the country. He was transported with five others in a marked police car, driven by men in plain clothes, before being forced onto a fishing vessel.

He was compelled to work on the boat for ten months without pay before he managed to escape. He and his fellow crewmembers suffered abuse and violence at the hands of the boat’s captain, including one attack that left him partially deaf: “I made a mistake by opening the box where the fish are stored and he hit me from behind. It was so hard that I was knocked unconscious, and he smashed my face against the ice.”

HRAS spoke to Trent about the issues and what the U.K.-based charity is doing to help people like Naing.

HRAS: The collaborations that have made the widespread use of slave labour possible span Thai society. How can it have reached such a level?

When we started to examine it, the Thai fishing industry was completely out of control. There was no coherent fisheries management regime, and that led to an explosion in the number of boats and therefore the capacity in the industry. This in turn led to the fishing down of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand such that most of the high value species are gone.

The boats need to stay out longer, use more fuel and fish harder to catch a product that is diminishing all the time. This, therefore, means diminishing economic returns for the vessel operators. It is one of the primary motivations behind using bonded and slave labour.

The situation has reached the point where today, where if you took away that free or very cheap labour, many of those vessels that are operating quite simply wouldn’t be economic any more.

HRAS: How many slaves are there out on the boats?

From evidence obtained directly from our own investigations, we are sure its hundreds upon hundreds. By collective analysis, if you look at the United Nations survey, information from the Guardian, witness testimonies and other sources, you can see that it’s much larger numbers. There’s somewhere between 650,000 and 900,000 workers in the Thai seafood sector, and best estimates suggest that over 90 percent of them are migrant workers. You can say large numbers of those have been trafficked in, so you start to get an idea of the scale.

HRAS: EJF investigations have resulted in a number of reports and films that highlight the problems. What else have you been doing?

The recommendations we have made in the reports are not just a shopping list of ad-hoc nice to have ideas. They are finely tuned to the practical needs of Thailand, and we are always happy to provide precise detail and depth. So when we talk about vessel monitoring systems for example, I’ve had somebody in Bangkok sitting in the government command and control centre training people.

We are trying to deliver mechanisms that will enhance transparency and traceability. That’s the bedrock, because once you have that, then independent scrutiny can be applied and you have the ability to police change over time.

We have a fairly finely calibrated advocacy. We are not necessarily going out to huge numbers of individuals, but we try to talk to individuals and organizations that have specific points of influence within the sector. In Thailand, I’ve met personally with the deputy prime minister and other key ministers including the labour minister, foreign minister and agriculture ministry and the chief of the navy. That is the level at which we seek to engage and operate.

We work at comparable levels commercially in the Thai seafood industry’s major markets. The sustainable shrimp taskforce was originally set up at our request. We suggested the idea for the industry to get together and start addressing the issues that they had in their supply chain and the leverage they could bring by applying the pressure of their corporate dollars or their ability to change their sourcing and production methods.

HRAS: Thailand remains at the lowest level in the Trafficking in Persons reporting scheme, yet change is occurring slowly. What has been achieved to date?

We’ve now got a situation where the legal fundamentals are in place in Thailand to eradicate human trafficking. Over the last few years, Thailand has adopted a comprehensive range of fisheries and labour management laws.

Additionally, there’s been quite significant commercial pressure exerted through the diversion of investment that would arguably have gone to Thailand but has now gone to neighbouring states. That’s really significant, not because we want some sort of crude punitive punishment but because money talks. If people see money moving away, they realize that they have to act.

We have also seen a focus on reputation in Thailand. People often talk about Asian states and their concern for reputation, but in my experience, governments all over the world have a high regard for their reputation.

Big companies are also looking at their brand reputation and at protecting their market share, and they are asking: Do we really want to be associated with a product that is being produced by slaves? Almost universally the answer is “no”.

HRAS: EJF was founded in 2000. What prompted did you start it?

Protecting the environment is more than conservation. It is about equity, securing a fairer future and justice for those who need it most. When all the fish have been taken illegally, what happens to the coastal communities and all those people dependent on the resources?

When we set the organization up, I think it was true to say that there were very few organisations or even individuals that were explicitly linking environmental security and human rights, and we saw there was a very clear need.

At the time, there was a predominance of western organizations that would fly in to save the day so to speak but all too often they left nothing behind. There are amazing organisations out there, so I’m not being unduly critical. I’m just highlighting what we saw, and I think to achieve enduring change there is a very real need to localize the solutions to issues as well as bringing outside scrutiny and attention. One is not exclusive of the other.

HRAS: In many cases, you say, it has been hard to quantify success. What keeps you going?

The world has changed hugely over the past 15 years, and I’m a professional optimist. I believe in the ability to change and secure positive development. I’m also a passionate believer in the idea that it’s better to light a candle than to rage against the darkness.

I think small acts can add up to relatively grand change, so I’d much rather try and engage than sit back and bemoan the problems. Anybody who’s lived in the world of campaigning and advocacy in the human rights or environmental sectors knows how hard it is to secure change that is durable, but it is possible and it’s very motivating when you see it happen.

HRAS: There’s a shadow image to the successes and that is the simple question that you have to pose implicitly which is what would have happened had nobody tried anything?

In Europe, EJF is part of a collaboration with WWF, Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trusts tackling the E.U.’s illegal fishing problems. In the past, you have also collaborated with Greenpeace and Oxfam. What plans do you have for future collaborations?

We will maintain our investigations, and we are one of the few groups that conduct investigations at sea as well as on land. We’ll also maintain our high level advocacy at ministerial level and our delivery of appropriate solutions.

Because the organization is specifically set up such that it doesn’t need to be a brand in its own right, we didn’t want to tie our ability to operate to brand awareness, we are able to collaborate with organizations quite efficiently and effectively. I’m very keen on collaboration, because there’s too many people who think they have the answer and almost always, whilst you can play a part, you can’t deliver the whole, so working collectively and leveraging different assets and skills is a valuable thing.

EJF’s evidence of illegal fishing in West Africa has prompted arrests and million in fines levied against pirate fishing vessels. The charity has secured action from the U.S. Department of State towards halting human trafficking, and its investigative work into cotton in Uzbekistan led to one of the world’s most repressive governments signing U.N. conventions to end forced labour. EJF has also helped secure a global ban on a deadly pesticide. It has protected wildlife and wild places, from turtles in Liberia, mangrove forests in Brazil to wetlands in Cambodia.

HRAS looks forward to collaborating with EJF in the future. Thank-you, Steve.

The HRAS Interview with VGroup’s Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

Matt DunlopThe HRAS Interview: Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers

Seafarers’ needs are constantly evolving, and meeting them is a responsibility that global ship management company V.Group takes seriously. Human Rights at Sea spoke to Matt Dunlop, Group Director of Marine Operations at V.Group, to find out how the group cares for its seafarers.

HRAS: Tell us about V.Group?images

V.Group is the world’s leading provider of maritime services to the commercial shipping and cruise industries and an increasingly important player in the energy sector. The company delivers a wide range of marine services including technical management, seafarer management, technical support, procurement and ship supply chain management within an extensive brand portfolio including the market-leading ship management specialist V.Ships.

Continue reading The HRAS Interview with VGroup’s Matt Dunlop: In the Business of Caring for Seafarers