Survey from Liverpool John Moores University and The Mission to Seafarers shows scale of corrupt practice of seafarers compelled to pay illegal employment fees, leading to debt, exploitative working conditions, and extended family separation. The extent of illegal recruitment fees and charges being levied on seafarers, in violation of the Maritime Labour Convention, has been revealed in a research report and survey produced by Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and leading maritime welfare charity, The Mission to Seafarers (MtS).
The report, titled ‘Survey on Fees and Charges for Seafarer Recruitment or Placement’, shines a light on instances in which seafarers are being forced into paying illegal fees and charges, further confirming the extent of this serious problem and providing a better understanding of how widespread the issue is. The report includes a survey of over 200 seafarers, drawn from a wide variety of ranks, age and nationalities, and all data collected was processed rigorously in adherence to academic standards at Liverpool John Moores University. Almost 65% of respondents stated that they were aware of illegal demands for recruitment or placement fees, either through personal experience or the experience of a colleague.
92% of respondents declared that these corrupt practices must come to an end; an important figure as it highlights an awareness that such fees and charges are not an acceptable part of the hiring process. In terms of the nationalities and countries where illegal fees were most prevalent, 29% of cases were related to Indian citizens (followed by Filipino and then Burmese/Myanmarese citizens) and in 36% of cases, the demand for fees was made in India (followed by the Philippines and then Burma/Myanmar).
58% of respondents also stated that the demand for illegal fees and charges were from the crewing agent appointed by the shipping company. A further 31% said it was from an individual with links to the crewing agent and 11% said the demand came from an employee of the shipping company. When asked about the nature of the demand, 56% responded that it was described as a ‘service charge’, 29% as ‘agency fees/registration fees’ and 29% as a ‘bribe’.
The sums involved varied from US$50-100 up to US$7,500, with the average being US$1,872. In 10% of reported cases, the seafarers affected are still in debt. Furthermore, 29% of respondents had experience of their documents being unlawfully withheld during the recruitment process; typically their Continuous Discharge Certificate/Seamans’s book, passport or Certificate of Competency.
Such behaviour is a clear breach of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), an international treaty adopted by the International Labour Organisation. The MLC entered into force in 2013 and is often referred to as the ‘Seafarers’ bill of rights.’ It makes clear that no fees or charges should be borne by the seafarers for their recruitment, placement, or employment, other than for their seafarers’ book, statutory medical certificate, and passport. All seafarers should be able to access employment without the payment of fees or charges to recruitment agencies or intermediaries. This report builds on the initial study carried out by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) in April 2023, and further confirms the prevalence of seafarers being coerced into paying illegal fees. The impact of illegal recruitment fees on seafarers and their families can be very significant. In addition to the financial burden, the stress and strain inflicted can take its toll on the mental health of seafarers, while also limiting their career opportunities. In the worst cases, this exploitation can lead to serious human right violations, with seafarers trapped in debt bondage and forced to endure exploitative working conditions.
Extended family separation further compounds the distressing circumstances, as seafarers find themselves unable to speak out against other abusive or dangerous practices. The issue of illegal fees also poses a serious reputational risk for the shipping industry, leading to a breakdown in trust between seafarers and employers. Moreover, it exacerbates existing labour shortages in the shipping industry, discouraging existing seafarers from returning to sea and putting off the next generation from considering seafaring careers.
The report formed part of a discussion at The Global Forum for Responsible Recruitment, a major international forum bringing together businesses, civil society, trade unions, government, and academia to discuss the global agenda on responsible recruitment. Ben Bailey, The Mission to Seafarer’s Director of Programme, spoke at the Forum on the specific challenges faced by seafarers in terms of their employment and working conditions.
Commenting on the report, Ben Bailey said: “This report confirms what seafarers have told us informally when it comes to the scourge of illegal fees and charges that so many of them are being coerced into paying in return for employment. Not only does the data shed new light on this phenomenon, the anecdotal feedback from seafarers also further reveals how widespread and damaging this problem is to individuals and their families.
“The illegal charging of fees impacts not just the livelihoods and wellbeing of seafarers and their families who are being systematically exploited, but also to the wider reputation of the shipping industry. If shipping wants to be able to attract and retain the talented seafarers that it relies upon, it will require meaningful action from national and international regulators, shipping companies, and the recruitment sector to drive out this practice.” Dr. Christos Kontovas, LJMU report lead author, added: "Our study sheds light on the disturbing reality of seafarers being subjected to illegal fees and charges. These practices can trap seafarers in debt bondage, compelling them to endure exploitative and abusive working conditions. What is truly disheartening though is that such practices tarnish the image of the maritime industry, leading to its perception as exploitative and unfair. This, in turn, has the potential to discourage aspiring seafarers from pursuing their dreams. We are, currently, exploring strategies to mitigate these practices, aiming to contribute towards addressing this deeply serious problem."
Further work is ongoing which builds on a series of recommendations to tackle this issue. These include better definitions of fees and charges, and increased education and awareness. It is intended that this document, along with the recent IHRB and SSI study, will inform discussion around amending the Maritime Labour Convention and other regulatory instruments dealing with the recruitment and retention of seafarers.
The scale of this problem also highlights the importance of financial literacy for seafarers and their families. The Mission to Seafarers is helping to address this important issue through its WeCare Financial Literacy programme, which provides informative money management tools which can help seafarers and their families have more control over their spending and how to better manage their income.