A new research report finds that seafarers are routinely encountering exploitation in the form of illegal fees, demands for bribes, and other scams in their scramble for jobs in the commercial shipping industry. It emerges that many seafarers are forced to pay recruitment fees to secure opportunities, with the abuses most prevalent in countries with high rates of unemployment and often being ignored by shipping companies.
The research study by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) finds that for a majority of seafarers, the violation of their rights and welfare begins at the recruitment office where at least two-thirds are forced to pay recruitment fees to secure a job. The effect, according to the Seafarers and Recruitment Fees research, is significant levels of debt leading to forced labor conditions. They report that the practices are most common in Asia and Africa where people are least able to avoid and report these schemes.
IHRB and SSI surveyed almost 5,000 seafarers between September 2022 and February 2023 finding that over two-thirds (70 percent) of seafarers have experienced violations of their workers’ rights. Most of them reported being charged recruitment fees, an illegal practice affecting seafarers around the world. For the unsuspecting jobseekers, the fees are brandished as necessary to cover costs including the recruitment itself, travel, visa and administrative costs, and often other unspecified “fees” and “service charges” but often end up in the pockets of the agents and brokers.
The illegal practice is prevalent in India and Nigeria where 36 percent and 15 percent respectively of jobseekers were forced to pay recruitment fees. Other countries where the practice is common are Ukraine, the Philippines, Ghana, Pakistan, Romania, Croatia, and Bangladesh.
To minimize the risk of forced labor among seafarers, the shipping industry and its customers must work collectively to tackle this issue of illegal recruitment fees being charged to seafarers and seek an industry-wide shift to the ‘Employer Pays Principle’ whereby no worker is paying the costs of their own recruitment,” states the study.
Apart from greater awareness of the illegality of recruitment fees, there is a need for effective mechanisms to penalize offending agencies and for a remedy for seafarers who have paid illegal recruitment fees. Seafarers also need to know how and where to report such practices.