seafarers on a containership

Neglected at sea: Seafarer abandonment surges, showing once again that critical ‘S’ is missing in sustainability

In a disheartening revelation, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has unveiled alarming statistics regarding the abandonment of vessels in 2023. The figures reflect a worrying increase compared to the previous year, signifying an unsettling trend that demands urgent attention from the global maritime community.

Seafarers/Illustration; Image by Offshore Energy

Rising tide of abandonments:

A total of 132 abandonments were reported in 2023, marking a significant uptick of 10.92% from the figures recorded in 2022. The ITF, responsible for the overwhelming majority of these reports, shed light on the distressing reality faced by seafarers worldwide.

Under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC), vessels are considered abandoned when shipowners fail to cover the cost of a seafarer’s repatriation, neglect necessary maintenance and support, or unilaterally sever ties with them, including the non-payment of contractual wages for at least two months.

ITF’s disturbing findings:

Key findings from the ITF’s report include:

  • Owed wages from the 129 ITF-reported cases amounting to over $12.1 million.
  • 1,676 seafarers have reached out to ITF from abandoned vessels.
  • Indian seafarers bear the brunt, with over 400 reported cases of abandonment.

“The ongoing rise in the number of seafarer abandonments is unacceptable. Seafarers and their families pay the ultimate price for the greed and non-compliance of shipowners, enduring the inhuman consequences of a system that compromises their well-being, dignity, and basic human rights,” Steve Trowsdale, ITF Inspectorate Coordinator, said.

Human element neglect:

As the maritime industry engages in intense debates around decarbonization, ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance), and alternative fuels, a critical aspect often overlooked is the human element—the seafarers steering the ships. The focus on technological advancements and environmental sustainability must not eclipse the well-being and rights of those who navigate the high seas.

As the industry strives for carbon neutrality and sustainable practices, it must recognize and appreciate the invaluable contribution of seafarers. Adequate compensation, proper training on new technologies, and fostering an environment where their hard work is valued are essential steps toward ensuring a sustainable, socially responsible, and truly ESG-compliant maritime sector.

Seafarers are the heart of the transition the sector is embarking upon, and it is essential to recognize that technological advancements alone cannot sustain the industry. All the ammonia and hydrogen-powered engines in the world cannot exist in a vacuum when there is no one to operate them.

On the other hand, there is a pressing demand for top-tier talent to drive the transition and join the seafarer ranks. However, the very practices shaping this transformation are impacting the attractiveness of the seafaring profession. The allure of cutting-edge technologies loses its sheen when overshadowed by reports of seafarers being treated as ‘modern-day slaves.’ The narrative around the sector’s evolution must transcend the mechanical to embrace the human element.

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The persistent issue of seafarer abandonment stands as a stark reminder that, despite advancements, some challenges demand urgent resolution. As the sector gears up to embrace a new era of alternative fuels and sustainable practices, it is high time for the conversation around seafarer abandonment to be unequivocally concluded.

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The sector’s organizations continue to issue statements on the impetus of protecting seafarers in ‘war times’, against pirates, etc forgetting to protect them in peace times.

Seafarer abandonment, a relic of the past, should not cast a shadow on the industry’s progressive trajectory. The commitment to sustainability needs to extend beyond technological innovation to encompass the humane treatment of the individuals who make maritime operations possible.

In the wake of heightened awareness surrounding mental health, work conditions, and basic human rights, the attractiveness of the seafaring profession is at a crossroads. While the sector seeks top talent to realize its ambitious transition, it must confront and rectify practices that tarnish the allure of a career at sea.

Immediate action needed:

As the maritime community grapples with the aftermath of the pandemic and geopolitical tensions affecting seafarers, there is an urgent need for a collective and robust response. Prioritizing the human element in shipping operations, ensuring fair treatment, and enforcing stringent regulations against abandonment are imperative steps toward creating a sustainable and ethical maritime industry.

The numbers don’t lie – seafarer abandonment is on the rise, and it is a stain on the conscience of the global shipping community that cannot be ignored. The well-being and rights of those who navigate the world’s oceans must remain at the forefront of industry discussions and actions.