The Able Maritime Seafarers Inc manning agency in the Philippines is close to being red listed by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) after a series of incidents where crews’ rights have been abused.
The ITF launched its directory of agents at the beginning of August as part of its ITFShipBeSure.org initiative to help seafarers find safe, secure jobs. In the Philippines, a seafarer must register with a manning agent to work overseas. The agent is responsible for ensuring a seafarer’s earnings make it back to their family.
To help seafarers avoid the rogue agents, the ITFShipBeSure.org website ranks agents as green (good to go) or red (best to avoid).
Able Maritime Seafarers Inc: failing to protect seafarers
A run of horror stories sees Able Maritime coming close to being red listed by the ITF. This censure will come with a message from the ITF’s network of 134 inspectors and 670 affiliated unions across more than 150 countries: steer clear of ‘Able Maritime’.
“In three entirely different parts of the world, Filipino seafarers have found themselves being paid much less than they signed up for in ‘Able Maritime’ contracts,” ITF Inspectorate Coordinator Steve Trowsdale said.
“These seafarers have been trapped into working conditions well below the minimum we would expect and, in some cases, below what national and international laws allow. Manning agencies have duty to protect the seafarers that they place in work, and to get them home if conditions prove unsatisfactory or the jobs were advertised in a misleading way. At least three times in as many months, ‘Able Maritime’ has fallen well short.”
Trowsdale said his investigations unit was awaiting formal responses from the company in question, and from the licensing authority: the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which regulates the welfare and wages of more than 2.2 million Filipinos working abroad.
“If Able Maritime Seafarers Inc and the POEA on their behalf are unable to provide satisfactory responses to our serious and pressing questions; then we in the ITF will have no choice but to formally red list this manning agency and issue a worldwide alert through our networks warning seafarers of the potential dangers of engaging with this company,” said Trowsdale.
WHY 'ABLE MARITIME’ IS CLOSE TO BEING RED LISTED BY THE ITF INSPECTORATE
Strike 1 against ‘Able Maritime': Goundar Shipping, Fiji
Last year, Able Maritime Seafarers Inc placed 21 Filipino seafarers in Fiji with an already-controversial ferry company called Goundar Shipping. It persuaded the seafarers to fly more than 7,000km to take up jobs in operations and engineering. ‘Able Maritime’ promised decent wages and conditions which the seafarers did not get. Wages were switched from US to Fijian dollars at the last minute, meaning the seafarers received much less than they were initially offered.
Goundar seized passports and other documents and withheld some wages so that the seafarers had no way to leave. Those who contacted unions trying to get out of their situation were fired and left homeless and penniless, sleeping on the docks until they found support from locals and the ITF.
“Withholding travel documents and forcing people to work under threat are both offences in Fiji. And for an employer to unilaterally alter an overseas worker’s employment contract is in direct violation of Filipino regulations,” said Trowsdale, speaking of Goundar’s behaviour. “Yet it took months before the Fijian or the Filipino authorities would intervene to put a stop to this shameful situation.”
The Fiji police did launch an investigation but it seems to have came to nothing, said Trowsdale. “What is more concerning is that the conditions haven’t changed so that this type of bullying and human trafficking will happen again.”
Trowsdale said the manning agent, ‘Able Maritime’, did little to help the seafarers get home. The POEA briefly suspended the agency for its conduct. In a press statement and a live media conference, the POEA’s head, said officials were cracking down on ‘Able Maritime’. However, the POEA, quietly reinstated the company just a few weeks later.
Following the controversial re-instatement, the ITF wrote to the POEA asking officials to explain how exactly they arrived at such a decision. The POEA has not responded.
Strike 2 against ‘Able Maritime': Tuna farms of Malta
Eight Filipino seafarers were placed by Able Maritime with Malta Towage in May this year. When they arrived on the Mediterranean island, more than 10,000km from home, they found themselves being paid only about 40% of the wages agreed in the contract they had signed with the manning agency.
The seafarers were mostly employed in Malta in aquaculture operations, transporting feed to a tuna farm about an hour and a half from the main island.
Conditions onboard the vessels were well below minimum safe standards. Inspectors for the Malta flag state found 35 deficiencies against minimum standards on one vessel. The seafarers worked excessive hours and some were told to do work outside their normal duties.
“They were made to work long hours during the day,” said Paul Falzon, the ITF’s inspector in Malta. “They were kept on their boats in port from 10 at night to 6 in the morning but the generators were turned off so they had no light or air conditioning. Even overnight, it was hot in Malta this summer.”
Falzon has been working round the clock to get the seafarers home. He negotiated the repatriation of three seafarers back to the Philippines in August. Three more have been transferred to a sister company in Denmark, quite outside any contract that may exist (ITF efforts on their behalf continue). The final two seafarers have agreed to work until the end of September under much better terms and conditions, after which they will go home, thanks to ITF advocacy.
In fact, the contract the seafarers had signed in the Philippines did arrive with Malta Towage in August, after ITF inspectors started making enquiries. By that stage, it had little impact on protecting the seafarers’ welfare or their wages.
Strike 3 against 'Able Maritime’: missing in the Indian Ocean?
The wife of a seafarer on the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Qing Yuan Yu 116 (IMO 8546270) wants to know what has happened to her husband. He’s been out of touch for more than eight months.
'Able Maritime’ placed the woman’s husband, a Filipino seafarer, on a vessel at the beginning of the year. Since July, both the woman and the ITF have been trying to find out when he might return home. But ‘Able Maritime’ has only given vague answers saying the seafarer is ‘somewhere’ in the Indian Ocean. But ‘somewhere’ doesn’t help the man’s wife when the Indian Ocean covers 70 million square kilometres.
“The agency has a duty to look after the welfare of seafarers it places,” said Arvin Peralta, the ITF’s Inspector in Manila who has been monitoring all these cases from the Philippines. “But 'Able Maritime’ has been stonewalling our investigations. They seem to lack either the ability or willingness to give this woman the reassurance she needs.”
This is one of at least three fishing vessels where Able Maritime has responsibilities to crew members. The contract signed in the Philippines was for US$350 a month but crew were asked to accept a new contract once on board. This set the crew’s pay at only US$150 a month. Again, there are question marks over the poor conditions in which seafarers are expected to operate.
Three questions ‘Able Maritime’ needs to answer
- Why, on so many occasions, does it appear seafarers employed through Able Maritime Seafarers Inc are receiving much lower pay than that specified in their contracts?
- What does ‘Able Maritime’ do to vet potential employers and ensure the welfare of seafarers it places?
- How is it that ‘Able Maritime’ does not seem to be able to provide basic information such as arrival times and contact details for relatives?
“These three stories do not do justice to the enormous complexity of looking after seafarers who work internationally,” said the ITF’s Steve Trowsdale. “Our inspectors have put in countless hours investigating the conduct of ‘Able Maritime’, trying their best to get a fair deal for the seafarers that Able Maritime happily took money from. It has been a struggle simply to get the seafarers home at the end of some of the most awful contracted periods I’ve ever seen.”
“Until agencies like Able Maritime Seafarers Inc step up to their responsibilities, and until regulators like POAE do their job regardless of whether the television cameras are rolling: then seafarers will not be safe and respected working abroad.
“At least now their silence will be recorded with their inglorious debut as our first red listed company. At least now we can warn seafarers: steer clear of ‘Able Maritime’, avoid this company,”
The ITF Inspectorate continues its enquiries in all three of the cases above. The Inspectorate welcomes any seafarer who has been employed via Able Maritime over the last two years to supply information on their experiences with the company, including on their pay or conditions. Just email email@example.com
- Interviews: can be arranged with ITF Inspectorate Coordinator Steve Trowsdale and the ITF inspectors who have worked on these cases.
- The ITF would like to thank its inspectors and coordinators in the Philippines, Australia, Malta and elsewhere who have worked tirelessly on behalf of seafarers who have been let down by ‘Able Maritime'.
- Thanks are also due to many other people and organisations who have helped and continue to help the seafarers and fishers above, including ITF affiliates: the Associated Marine Officers' and Seamen's Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP), the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the General Workers' Union (GWU) of Malta.
About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice for nearly 20 million working women and men in the transport industry across the world.
Media contact: media[at]itf.org.uk