Crews Abandoned on Ships Without Pay, Food or a Way Home
October 11, 2021 9:10 AM   Subscribe

 
It really feels like these companies should be required to have insurance that would cover them paying out owed wages and sending people home as a condition of even being licensed to operate
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:23 AM on October 11 [50 favorites]


I think traditionally this is when the crew converts to piracy?
posted by saturday_morning at 9:23 AM on October 11 [57 favorites]




Thanks, TCHD. I thought the Amp version would come through, but it looks like it didn't so that helps.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:26 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


99% Invisible did a great episode about this earlier this year.

(Note that I'd recommend listening to the whole thing, as there's a lot of detail left out of the summary linked above)
posted by schmod at 9:31 AM on October 11 [14 favorites]


Came in to recommend the episode schmod mentions above - this is a serious problem for so many people yet very little known.
posted by Megami at 9:39 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


It really feels like these companies should be required to have insurance that would cover them paying out owed wages and sending people home as a condition of even being licensed to operate

They typically sail under flags of convenience so they will just seek out the least regulated jurisdiction and continue as they have for the last 40 or so years doing the absolute least good they can get away with which historically has included dumping contaminated bilge water and destroying ecosystems by introducing invasive species, dumping/leaking oil&gas, spilling cargo, murdering stowaways and on and on. The seas are surprisingly lawless even compared to failed states.

When regulations are attempted like port entry requirements what happens is that they will just commit their malfeasance just outside of the jurisdiction right on the edge of claimed national waters.

These are not even shady fly-by-night operations run by people with reputations as bad characters. Canada's former prime minister who was also the former finance minister who was the architect behind Canada's resilient financial system that resisted the effects of the 2008 market crash, Paul Martin, rather infamously ran a shipping business, Canada Steamship Lines, that did many of these things.
posted by srboisvert at 9:41 AM on October 11 [39 favorites]


I cannot even imagine the sunken cost math that would lead to me deciding to stay on a rotting ship for years, simply hoping for a cut of the scrap sale. That would cut a huge wedge out of your very sense of self. Just awful.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:53 AM on October 11 [12 favorites]


In 1801, Robert Randall, whose family wealth came from privateering, bequeathed his estate to the creation of Sailor's Snug Harbor, an institution to take care of "aged, decrepit and worn-out" sailors. It's kind of crazy that none of today's billionaire shipping families will even pay to get the sailors off their fucking boats.
posted by phooky at 10:10 AM on October 11 [40 favorites]


Shipping…. Years ago I saw a photo exhibit at a local art gallery that featured large color photos of ship breaking. I had never heard of this but the handy sheets about the photos explained what it was. The photos were amazing and beautiful but when I understood what I was looking at, they became horrific. Huge ships beached somewhere in South Asia, and taken apart pretty much by hand, releasing horrendous amounts of toxic waste, all for the price of scrap metal. I guess these ships described in the post aren’t even getting that far.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:17 AM on October 11 [6 favorites]


I think traditionally this is when the crew converts to piracy?

The fuel costs alone for these ships are around $50,000 per day, so the fuel cost for one day is typically more than the monthly salary of the whole crew. Then factor in being 10 or 20 days sailing from home and the crew being from a bunch of different countries.
posted by Lanark at 10:21 AM on October 11 [12 favorites]



I cannot even imagine the sunken cost math that would lead to me deciding to stay on a rotting ship for years, simply hoping for a cut of the scrap sale. That would cut a huge wedge out of your very sense of self. Just awful.


That's not the calculation they're making. If they jump ship without anyone on board, they're criminally liable for the derelict ship they leave behind. So they'd be leaving one prison for another.
posted by ocschwar at 10:45 AM on October 11 [16 favorites]


I've been wondering what will happen to our infrastructure as climate change makes it impractical or impossible to maintain it or decommission it. Power plants, refineries, junkyards, etc, etc.

This is probably an unpleasant preview of what the next 50 years are going to look like, but on a much larger scale.
posted by keep_evolving at 10:46 AM on October 11 [14 favorites]


It's kind of crazy that none of today's billionaire shipping families will even pay to get the sailors off their fucking boats.

Almost like you have to be a heartless ghoul to amass a billion dollars.
posted by axiom at 11:01 AM on October 11 [72 favorites]


Famed New Yorker writer John McPhee's 1990 book Looking for a Ship is a Pulitzer-nominated true tale of the US's fading shipping industry. I don't recall it addressing the abandonment problem.
posted by neuron at 11:14 AM on October 11 [7 favorites]


^^^ that's a terrific book, though dated. I don't think it did the abandonment either. but man, what a book.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:19 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


If you want to understand why the ships aren't insured or why unpaid workers remain on abandoned ships, you might consider reading the fine article.

Also the article doesn't talk about this explicitly but the impression I got is that the big billionaire shipping companies aren't involved; it's small companies failing. "Industry consolidation has yielded a half dozen shipping firms that ferry a majority of the world’s containers ... These firms have driven out competitors helming smaller, more rundown ships."

Related: ‘It’s Not Sustainable’: What America’s Port Crisis Looks Like Up Close and Inside America’s Broken Supply Chain. These two articles are more about US shipping and delivery problems, not the humanitarian crisis of these trapped sailors. But it's what's happening at the other end of the broken chain.
posted by Nelson at 11:25 AM on October 11 [7 favorites]


the sunken cost math

ISWYDT
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:30 AM on October 11 [8 favorites]


This is a ghastly story, no doubt, and it's only one petal on the shit-flower of commercial shipping.

Read Ian Urbina's book "The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier" to hear about pollution, human trafficking, and more. It's depressing that humans would treat each other so much worse than they would treat a dog. :7(
posted by wenestvedt at 11:35 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


Crewless ships can be called ghost ships. They are a real and expensive problem in smaller locales, like Puget Sound, where they leak oil and gasoline and detritus into the water.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:36 AM on October 11 [7 favorites]


I can’t describe easily how quickly and completely these supply chain issues will be dramatically changing our society in the next decade. Genuinely recommend you stock up on extra food, for your neighbors and those less fortunate than you if not for yourself.

The system we have is so fragile right now I fear a Kessler Syndrome style collapse of modern capitalism. What I mean by that is Kessler Syndrome describes a hypothetical scenario where space objects or debris collide, causing a chain reaction of collisions that render near earth orbit inaccessible because of all the resulting debris and satellites operating completely out of orbit.

These supply chain issues have a potential similar effect. Plant A can’t get the repair parts it needs but supplies Plants B, C and D who then cannot service F, G, H, I, J and K who then cannot service…etc…on and on.

The knock on effects from this, I fear, will be disastrous.
posted by glaucon at 11:43 AM on October 11 [24 favorites]


And isn't the prevailing wisdom at least what I've picked up from Metafilter is that you cannot "prep" in any way that will actually be useful so don't even bother? So just like what? Expect everything to fall apart and no one will be coming?
posted by bleep at 12:11 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


I don’t know what it says about me - but my first thought was “hmmm wonder if the Hedge Funds are moving into maritime salvage yet - seems like the very definition of a distressed asset”. I’m almost afraid to look - I know they have financed specific endeavors relating to high value sinking/salvage like for retrieving artifacts from the Titanic - but not sure if they are doing more generally.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 12:18 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I'm with you on the supply chain apocalypse, glaucon.

My partner sells replacement industrial machine parts for a living. Factories who are down are being quoted spring delivery times for replacement parts in some cases. This is all very real and is going to continue trickling down in myriad ways.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:19 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


Think about the sunk costs that people must have in the supply chain to not consider, I don't know, changing it, or forgiving debts, anything, to free up movement of the more important goods. We're still shipping loads of stuff nobody actually needs, too. Maybe the whole world should stop and agree maybe we should focus on the stuff that is important and keeps the whole world running and alive. Maybe the kitsch and the candy can wait a bit while we figure things out.

Nope, we have to wait until we've completely run it into the ground and returned to an agrarian society in a poisoned world not by choice but by merit of failure to give up on the sunk cost of a Just In Time delivery system.
posted by deadaluspark at 12:24 PM on October 11 [15 favorites]


you cannot "prep" in any way that will actually be useful so don't even bother? So just like what? Expect everything to fall apart and no one will be coming?

Meet your neighbors. Join a local mutual aid group. Advocate for your city to be a place that doesn't cut off each neighborhood with freeways. Make it a place that people bike all around now. Plant enough trees to lower the temperature around your city by 1 or 2 degrees. Get rid of stupid laws that allow little walled cities to develop. Become a place that billionaires with private security forces don't want to live in. Do things that might help later, but will definitely help now. If you can't think of anything, or you only want to do things that make a big obvious impact, donate a kidney or become a foster parent or something.
posted by bashing rocks together at 12:25 PM on October 11 [47 favorites]


And isn't the prevailing wisdom at least what I've picked up from Metafilter is that you cannot "prep" in any way that will actually be useful so don't even bother?

I think this the obligatory comment that always chills me when I read it because I can imagine it playing out like this almost anywhere I’ve lived (sans the war aspect which is almost too awful to think about)

We are expecting our first significant snow fall tonight of what is expected to be a colder and wetter than average snow season here in the Utah mountains. So the prospect of supply chain collapse is fairly fucking unsettling.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 12:27 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]


If you want to understand why the ships aren't insured or why unpaid workers remain on abandoned ships, you might consider reading the fine article.

Oh for sure. I did. After all, I posted it. I understand how it happens. I do not understand why some international body does not stop it from happening.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:53 PM on October 11 [14 favorites]


The supply chain problem we are experiencing now is the after-effect of pretty much all market participants reacting to COVID in March and April 2020 by canceling orders, idling production, and laying off key workers.

This was refighting the last war, because the smartest move in the global financial crisis in September 2008 turned out to have been to slam on the breaks as hard as possible, given that demand was suppressed for more than a year and didn't really get back up in many markets until 2011 or 2012.

Of course, what happened last year was that demand took a break of maybe four weeks, before starting to turn back and was acting as if COVID never happened within three months. Only the people with the most acute view of demand lightened up on the breaks in April and many didn't see the real picture of the "recession that never was" until the fall.

Excess capacity has been so purged coming into 2020 that those 2-5 months of intentionally idling may take years to recover from.
posted by MattD at 1:01 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]


That's not the calculation they're making. If they jump ship without anyone on board, they're criminally liable for the derelict ship they leave behind. So they'd be leaving one prison for another.


So the crew is criminally liable for the ship itself, while the shipping company isn't even CIVILLY liable for the de facto slaves they've stranded on their own ships to save a few bucks? I don't know why I'm surprised, but that seems like an especially egregious case of rich people and poor people having totally different laws governing them.
posted by Mayor West at 1:09 PM on October 11 [15 favorites]


they're criminally liable for the derelict ship they leave behind

I am curious about this: criminally liable according to who? The location the ship is in?
posted by bashing rocks together at 1:14 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


I am curious about this: criminally liable according to who? The location the ship is in?

If you're some third world country this boat got dumped on, and you struggle to get large nations to give a shit about what you say or what you need, who do you think is easier to punish in this case? The person who owns the company and lives in a first world nation, or the guy that got left on the boat, still in your nation?

Obviously, in a rational world, they would just let the guy on the boat go, understanding they could not possibly have any control of it. Too bad humans are pretty fuckin irrational.
posted by deadaluspark at 1:17 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


the shipping company isn't even CIVILLY liable

The shipping company is probably bankrupt. Also, in another country. Again, this article isn't about successful shipping companies being shitty to employees. It's about what happens when a small company fails.

I do not understand why some international body does not stop it from happening.

Sounds like the treaty referenced in the article is the attempt to stop this labor exploitation from happening. But a bunch of Middle Eastern countries have not signed on, no doubt because profit is more important to them than worker's rights. And because this is an international labor market they can always find workers to sign on even if they aren't protected.

One solution would be for ports to refuse services to companies that don't have appropriate insurance for protecting the workers. You can be sure the ports won't accept a ship that doesn't have insurance to protect the port! But standing on worker protection would cost the ports money. Then again having a bunch of abandoned ships with people living on them is also costing the ports money.
posted by Nelson at 1:36 PM on October 11 [9 favorites]


But a bunch of Middle Eastern countries have not signed on, no doubt because profit is more important to them than worker's rights

The United States hasn't ratified the Maritime Labour Convention, either.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 1:55 PM on October 11 [29 favorites]


+1 to what Nelson said.

The global shipping industry is, and has always been extremely messed up, but there are still going/ to be a lot of situations where a shipping company might fail for legitimate or benign reasons.

Even when nobody's acted nefariously, the situation still turns into an absolute quagmire.

(Worse still, this often happens in places where the local governments don't necessarily have the funds to drag an enormous derelict ship out of their harbor even if they want to.)
posted by schmod at 1:55 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]




Just make the countries where the ships are registered liable in case the companies go out of business. That would force countries to clamp down on these issues and put an end to Walmart MEGAfleet being flagged as Vanuatu or whatever.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:07 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Just make the countries where the ships are registered liable in case the companies go out of business.

Liable to whom? A lot of talk about international bodies seems to forget the UN doesn't have binding power on nations, as much as we'd like it to.

See: The US not being part of the International Criminal Court and literally drawing up plans to invade the Hague if anyone from our government is ever drawn up on war crimes charges.

Like I said, liable to whom?
posted by deadaluspark at 3:12 PM on October 11 [9 favorites]


the guy that got left on the boat, still in your nation?

If it's simply "first guy I can catch is liable because I said so" then it becomes a question of getting the workers out of the jurisdiction the boat is in, which is solvable by quite a few different groups - on a level of challenging but logistical problems. I asked because if it were actually recognized international law, you'd have to deal with all kinds of issues after that like extradition and legal trouble with the country they arrive in which is a whole different category of problem.
posted by bashing rocks together at 3:26 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't the counsulates of the respective countries the sailors are from be willing to repatriate them? Or is that unfeasible or diplomatically untenable for some reason?
posted by at by at 3:47 PM on October 11


These are mostly poor countries and I presume the cost of rescuing a single citizen would be significant. Also, I expect countries that rely on remittances from expatriate labourers have strong incentives to avoid rocking the boat (as it were).
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:12 PM on October 11 [9 favorites]


This is really a form of holdout empowered by pro-labor international law. Seaman’s wages are a priority lien on the vessel that anyone who buys the vessel, even to scrap it, has to pay ahead of the ship mortgage. That’s why there is almost always a happy ending to these stories — the seamen’s wages are going to be less than scrap value on the vessel so they will get paid.
posted by MattD at 6:09 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


Posts like this, and discussion like this, is why I keep hanging around Metafilter. My goodness this is all so interesting. Thanks everyone!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:29 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


I am curious about this: criminally liable according to who? The location the ship is in?


Yup. All that location has for leverage is the ship and the crew. And they don't actually want either of them. What do you do? Seize the crew who are right there? Or send an Interpol red notice?
posted by ocschwar at 8:05 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


I know this is a 'turtles' solution, but if people were liable for what their companies failed at, incentives would be very different.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:14 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


That’s why there is almost always a happy ending to these stories — the seamen’s wages are going to be less than scrap value on the vessel so they will get paid.

That's not a happy ending.
posted by ambrosen at 1:23 AM on October 12 [7 favorites]


Liable to whom?

Here’s a list of banned airlines in the EU. I assume there’s something similar in the US and other countries.

Companies that register ships in countries that allow dumping toxic waste, using unsafe vessels and mistreating workers should be banned from entering port so that these issues don’t arise in the first place.
posted by romanb at 2:13 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]


I know this is a 'turtles' solution, but if people were liable for what their companies failed at, incentives would be very different.

You’re right, but with income inequality as dangerously unbalanced as it is and the regulatory, judicial and legislative capture the elites have secured this would very quickly be turned on the less fortunate rather than the ultra wealthy who are squeezing profits out of human slaves on these ships, and in other industries.
posted by glaucon at 3:04 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


I keep harping on this point, but liability doesn't mean anything if the owners are missing, bankrupt, or dead.

Also, if a vessel turns up abandoned in international waters (or a foreign port), is the ship's home nation really going to be willing to fetch it? What's their motivation?

What if the home nation is a poorer country? Do we ban ships from countries that cannot afford an expensive recovery operation? Would these laws simply have the effect of freezing Africa out of global commerce?

I don't mean to be all nihilistic, but this is a centuries-old quandary of international law. There are reforms that we should do, but it isn't at all clear that those will solve this problem.
posted by schmod at 6:40 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


99% Invisible podcast on the topic
“Nobody cares about them and they are truly abandoned by their state, by everybody else,” says Laleh Khalili, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University in London. She just finished writing a book about the shipping industry in the Gulf called Sinews of War and Trade. Khalili says that the main motivation for seafarers to stay on an abandoned ship is that if they leave, they may end up forfeiting all of their wages.
posted by mecran01 at 6:48 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]


>What if the home nation is a poorer country? Do we ban ships from countries that cannot afford an expensive recovery operation? Would these laws simply have the effect of freezing Africa out of global commerce?

Seems like those countries could purchase recovery insurance/make ships that register under their flag purchase recovery insurance. Banning ships from countries that don't have a recovery solution would not freeze Africa out of global commerce, just force some African countries to tweak their regulations.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 7:28 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


Seems like those countries could purchase recovery insurance/make ships that register under their flag purchase recovery insurance.

You know, governments exist so things like insurance can be organized under a set of rules. I think a lot of people are missing the bigger picture that the oceans are largely lawless and maritime law does jack shit for a lot of things.

But also, really? I didn't know governments could just shop for insurance the way regular people do. Who do they buy it from? God? It's just hard for me to envision because governments are supposed to be the top-level of control in a society, and this makes it sound like there's an even higher echelon above the State that must be providing insurance for the State. Who else is above the state but God? (full disclosure: am atheist)

Like genuinely, if they have to buy it from a company based in another country, especially if that country is considered not friendly, you can bet your ass they're going to be skeptical about whether or not that country and their insurance business isn't going to screw them when the time comes. Which will make a big bite into actual adoption of this idea.

Otherwise, you basically have to build that "insurance" regime in your own country, right? I don't think the UN or Interpol offer insurance plans. Poor countries literally don't have the infrastructure or money to be building their own insurance regime.

Maybe everyone's just so used to corporations having more rights than governments that they assumed that's how it worked?
posted by deadaluspark at 7:39 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


There is a huge body of maritime law, established and older than most countries. Is it right or just? It's law, and it takes into account significant issues that have barely been noticed here. Maritime law is the only truly international body of legislation that encompassas the entire world. I feel for the sailors having a rough time, but it's something anyone getting on a ship knows is possible heading off into the deep blue.

One country we know of is struggling with the idea of the rule of law, so many disparities but go for law.
posted by sammyo at 7:45 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]


sammyo,

Not trying to say maritime law isn't worthwhile, just that it leaves a lot of room for things like this to happen, and people seem to think international waters have an international police force in boats just waiting for someone to do something wrong. No such luck. The ocean is vast and it's easy to be alone and do dirty deeds with no one seeing on the ocean.
posted by deadaluspark at 7:48 AM on October 12


>Who do they buy it from?

Lloyds of London. Or deals with richer governments that are not typically spelled out as "insurance" but often function similarly. Or, again, the port city can demand that each ship wishing to dock there have insurance regardless of its home country.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 2:44 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]


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