Unpaid salaries, crews abandoned and worn ships. In merchant navies around the world there are many examples of seamen working under abysmal conditions, but Annica Barning, ITF inspector, explains that the absolute worst ships seldom come to Sweden.
– Welcome, welcome. Please sit down.
With a firm handshake and a small bow, Captain Huang Songfa receives us in his office. The interior is like the other rooms in the Panamanian flagged bulk ship Da Hua – bare and worn. The captain pushes overflowing ashtrays towards the middle of the table to make space for the documents and journals that Annica has with her. After a few minutes’ small talk she asks to see the crew manifest, collective agreements, employment contracts and information about the ship.
– This is the second time this year that the ITF has come onboard. The last time was in Australia in March, says Huang Songfa while he takes out the documents requested. If crews don’t get paid or are working in bad conditions, it is a good thing that the ITF comes, and two inspections a year is OK.
In her capacity as inspector for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, ITF, Annica Barning has the task of inspecting ships with flags of convenience and checking that the crews are paid the right salaries at the right time and have a reasonable life onboard.
– Sometimes there is a certain nonchalance about pay. Salaries are paid late and sometimes the crew is not compensated for overtime.
Annica and her colleagues first and foremost choose to inspect ships that do not have collective agreements. According to ITF’s most commonly signed collective agreement, TCC (total crew cost), a seaman should receive at least 1,676 US dollars (about 12,000 SEK) per month, a mate or technical officer 2,825 US dollars (about 20,000 SEK) and a captain, 5,345 US dollars (about 39,000 SEK).
Many shipowners try to get away with paying less, however.
– They usually defend their position by saying that crews earn good pay compared with income levels in their home countries. But seafarers work and compete on an international market, so that argument does not hold up, says Annica.
Sometimes crewmembers contact ITF to get help, and those ships are given highest priority when they moor. By and large, though, the inspectors pick out the ships to be inspected through the federation’s internal database, which contains information on agreements onboard and previous inspections. If there is no collective agreement they telephone the shipping company and ask them to sign an agreement.
Sometimes it is possible to reach an agreement relatively quickly and easily. Other times more persuasion is necessary.
– Through sympathy actions from Transport we can organise a blockade and stop a ship from being loaded and unloaded. That is one unique action we have at our disposal here in Sweden, but it only used in exceptional cases and we always try to reach an agreement through negotiations first, she says.
If a ship does not have a collective agreement, a check is made on whether other ships owned by the same company are also without such agreements. In this way the inspectors may gain agreements for a number of ships.
– Negotiate, negotiate, and negotiate. That’s what it is always about. And for every ship that gets an agreement we have made a small improvement, says Annica.
Reluctance to accept help
It is not always that personnel onboard want to or dare to accept help, she explains.
– There is a fear of losing jobs as well as gratitude to shipping companies, which makes people try to protect them. Sometimes the crew has been told to sign papers saying that they have received their salaries, even though it is not true. That’s really bad, but there is not much we can do in such situations.
After a while Annica Barning is able to state that captain Songfa on the Da Hua has his papers in quite good order. The documentation appears to be correct, even though language problems result in a misunderstanding about overtime lists.
– I like it when they have to search a bit for the papers. When they pull out a neat file with ITF written on it, you suspect straight away that they are cooking the books, she says.
But it is not only salaries that are checked when ITF is onboard. The general living standards, hygiene in the galley and availability of fresh fruit, vegetables and other goods are inspected.
– It happens that someone contacts us and says that they there is no milk or fruit. The captain may claim that these things have been ordered at the next harbour, in which case we can call the ship’s chandler and check that the claim is really true.
Onboard the Da Hua the 22-man Chinese crew appears to have reasonably good conditions. Down in the galley there are no obvious hygiene problems. The fruit is stored cool and in the dark, and the fridges and freezers are well-stocked. This is not always the case, however. ITF has 150 inspectors in 46 countries and they come across crews that live and work under dreadful conditions.
– We were at an ITF meeting in Istanbul in June and there were hundreds of ships laid up and abandoned after the financial crisis. On some of the ships the crewmembers were without food or water and the ITF inspectors had to take provisions out to them, says Annica Barning.
Need for improvisation and flexibility
In Sweden, too, foreign ships are sometimes abandoned and the shipowners take no responsibility. Then you have to be creative, says Annica. On one occasion ITF even managed to get money for food from the social services. SEKO Seafarers has a foundation from which funds can be obtained, and ITF itself has some resources for helping out with food and other necessities.
– You can’t just let people starve, but you have to improvise and be damned flexible to find solutions that work. You have to work with the shipping company as well as the flag country to find a long-term solution, though, she says.
Annica is stationed in Stockholm and is responsible for the all harbours from Norrköping as far as the Finnish border. Most of the ships checked are cargo ships, but in the summer a number of cruise ships are also inspected by ITF.
– They may have crews of up to five or six hundred with different nationalities, and there is always something that is not working out for someone. This summer we have been on the same ship four times, but we have managed to solve the problems every time, she says.