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 

 

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.

The HRAS Interview: Robert Robinson North of England P&I Club – Seafarers Isolated Despite Greater Connectivity


Robert RobinsonSeafarers Isolated Despite Greater Connectivity

Separation from family and friends might cause seafarers to feel isolated, but this is not the only form of isolation they can encounter. Another comes from the very technology designed to reduce it.

Better digital communication technology can compound isolation problems at sea by reducing social interaction on board. Rather than chat, play games or watch videos with other crew members, it is now all too easy for seafarers to retreat to their cabins with their mobile devices.

HRAS spoke to North P&I Club claims executive Robert Robinson about the club’s recent concerns on potential downsides of greater connectivity at sea.

HRAS: How can greater connectivity be a bad thing for seafarers?

Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Robert Robinson North of England P&I Club – Seafarers Isolated Despite Greater Connectivity

The HRAS Interview: Cecily Hardy, Creative Producer, Blue Angel BIG hART

Cecily Hardy[3]Seafarers: The Forgotten Workforce

For some people art is purely for decoration or entertainment, but for community artists in the Big hART group it is a powerful form of communication, often associated with social change. They turn ordinary people into artists so they can share their life and views with a wide audience.

Big hArt is currently working on a project called Blue Angel, which looks at the lives of people in the shipping industry – the seafarers, their families, their unions and their mangers and employers as Cecily Hardy, the creative producer explains.

HRAS: The idea for Blue Angel came after a chance meeting with a retired seafarer. As an outsider to the industry, the meeting had a big impact on Big hART founder Scott Rankin – it opened his eyes to the invisibility of the sea. What are the stories that Blue Angel is telling?

We are bringing out contemporary issues, the fractured situation between unions and operators, the foreign versus the domestic seafarer market Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Cecily Hardy, Creative Producer, Blue Angel BIG hART

The HRAS Interview: Captain Pradeep Chawla, Managing Director QHSE & Training, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management

????????????????????????????????????A family at sea and a family at home.

There is a disconnect between charitable organizations and the seafarers they aim to help, and it’s a disconnect that extends beyond the seafarer to the, often extended, family that he supports, says Captain Pradeep Chawla, Managing Director, QHSE & Training, at the world’s largest ship management company, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management.

Captain Chawla has 27,000 seafarers in his care, and HRAS spoke to him about the passion that takes him beyond his professional role at Anglo-Eastern.

HRAS: What gaps do you see in the charitable care of seafarers? Continue reading The HRAS Interview: Captain Pradeep Chawla, Managing Director QHSE & Training, Anglo-Eastern Ship Management

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

The HRAS Interview with Dean Summers of ITF Australia

Dean SummersSlave Ship; Death Ship; Summers Wants Change

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. Continue reading The HRAS Interview with Dean Summers of ITF Australia

The HRAS Interview with Commodore Barry Bryant CVO RN Director General Seafarers UK

Barry BryantThe HRAS Interview with Commodore Barry Bryant CVO RN Director General Seafarers UK

Commodore Barry Bryant is the Director General of Seafarer’s UK, the charity that helps people in the maritime community by providing vital funding to support seafarers in need and their families. With a notable career at the Royal Navy and recognition by Her Majesty The Queen, Commodore Bryant now works ashore, dedicating his work to fulfill his organisation’s charitable objectives.

HRAS: Commodore Bryant, thank you for speaking to us for the new ‘HRAS Interview’ online publication. As a former seafarer and experienced senior Royal Navy officer, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of a seafarer’s life that the majority of people who have never been to sea and may not necessarily comprehend?

Despite an increasingly crowded and technological world, people who have not been to sea find it hard to appreciate the sheer vastness and power of the ocean, and the occasional inability of even the largest ships and most experienced seafarers to master the most extreme aspects of waves and weather. Those who fail to respect the sea may well not survive it.

HRAS: In your opinion, what kind of perils does the modern seafarer have to deal with while serving at sea? Are they all physical ones? Continue reading The HRAS Interview with Commodore Barry Bryant CVO RN Director General Seafarers UK

The HRAS Interview with Mr. Chirag Bahri – Seafarer’s Welfare Personality of the Year 2015

Chirag with IMO Secretary GeneralHRAS: First of all, many congratulations on your 2015 International Seafarers Welfare Award “The Dr. Dierk Lindemann Welfare Personality of the Year”. What does this mean to you and your work at the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP)?

Many thanks for your warm wishes. It was a huge honour to receive this prestigious award by the IMO Secretary General a few days back. It recognizes the sufferings of thousands of seafarers and their families affected by maritime piracy and that MPHRP, with the assistance of our partners, has been able to provide humanitarian assistance to many of them. Continue reading The HRAS Interview with Mr. Chirag Bahri – Seafarer’s Welfare Personality of the Year 2015