A new research report finds that seafarers routinely face exploitation in the form of illegal fees, solicitations of bribes and other scams in their quest for commercial shipping jobs. It turns out that many seafarers are forced to pay recruitment fees to secure opportunities, with the abuse being most widespread in countries with high unemployment and often ignored by shipping companies.
The research study by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Initiative for Sustainable Shipping (SSI) finds that for the majority of seafarers, violations of their rights and welfare begin at the recruitment office, where at least two-thirds are forced to pay recruitment fees to secure a job. According to the Seafarers and Recruitment Fees Inquiry, this leads to significant indebtedness leading to forced labor conditions. They report that the practices are most prevalent in Asia and Africa, where people are least able to avoid and report these systems.
IHRB and SSI surveyed nearly 5,000 seafarers between September 2022 and February 2023 and found that over two-thirds (70 percent) of seafarers have experienced violations of their labor rights. Most of them said they were charged recruitment fees, an illegal practice affecting seafarers around the world. For the unsuspecting job seeker, fees are touted as needed to cover costs including the recruitment itself, travel, visa and administration costs, and often other unspecified “fees” and “service charges” which, however, often end up in the pockets of the Land agents and brokers.
Notably, the vast majority (71 percent) of those charged illegal recruitment fees did not report it, in most cases because they did not know where to report such abuses. Of those reportedly charged recruiting fees, 45 percent were officers, 16 percent were cadets, and 39 percent were sailors.
The research claims that the hiring of agents and brokers in countries where desperate unemployed jobseekers would do anything to secure seagoing jobs has turned recruitment processes into money-making schemes, not just by charging recruitment fees, but by doing so Scamming applicants with fake job offers. Over a quarter, 27 percent of those surveyed said they had paid placement fees for job offers that were found to be fake.
The illegal practice is widespread in India and Nigeria, where 36 percent and 15 percent of jobseekers have been forced to pay hiring fees, respectively. Other countries where the practice is common include Ukraine, Philippines, Ghana, Pakistan, Romania, Croatia and Bangladesh.
Although refusing to pay placement fees meant no contract for jobseekers, 44 percent of those who refused to pay said they had been blackmailed by recruiters. The most frequently cited tactic is threats by occupation agents to spread negative references to other authorities.
It adds that not only is it prohibited to charge recruitment fees for a post under the MLC, but the resulting debt burden on seafarers can be a significant factor in the risk of forced labour. Respondents also reported corruption on board ships, in education/training, promotion and medical examinations.
“To minimize the risk of forced labor among seafarers, the shipping industry and its customers must work together to address the issue of illegal recruitment fees being charged to seafarers and seek an industry-wide shift to the ’employer principle’ whereby no worker pays will bear the cost of their own recruitment,” the study said.
According to the study, banning the levying of recruitment fees on workers is an important way companies can ensure better working conditions for seafarers. To end the illegal practice of charging seafarers recruitment fees, the study recommends that shipping companies must ensure that seafarers employed on board their ships are not charged recruitment fees in order to secure their employment contracts.
Other measures include the need for port authorities to investigate all reports of hiring fees being charged and for governments to ensure that crewing agencies are not charging jobs by enacting and enforcing penalties for such practices. Shipping company customers, including charterers, commodity companies and traders, and containerized cargo owners are also required to carry out human rights due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, according to the report’s authors.
In addition to raising awareness of the illegality of recruitment fees, there is a need for effective mechanisms to penalize defaulting agencies and provide redress for seafarers who have paid illegal recruitment fees. Seafarers also need to know how and where to report such practices.