Fiji Investigates Allegations of Abusive Treatment of Seafarers

File image courtesy Goundar Shipping

Published Mar 11, 2021 2:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

Fijian authorities have launched an investigation into a ferry company's allegedly abusive abusive treatment of dozens of Filipino seafarers, according to the ITF. The union called for a thorough inquiry into areas of the operator's operations. 

Last week, ITF reported that Fijian ferry operator Goundar Shipping had fired and abandoned three seafarers after they contacted local union representatives. In addition, ITF alleges that  that staff at Goundar Shipping tried to confiscate several seafarers’ passports and other documents when they began working at the company. Withholding travel documents and forcing persons to work under threat are both offenses under Fiji’s human trafficking laws.

“We welcome news of a police investigation into Goundar Shipping after so many months of inaction from Fijian authorities. But it is important that any investigation addresses the full list of allegations against Goundar Shipping. We’re talking human trafficking, slavery, deception, labor law violations, intimidation, the list goes on,” alleged ITF inspector Sarah Maguire. “It’s clear now that more than 20 Filipino seafarers were lured to Fiji to operate an aging ferry fleet under false pretences, only to find 50-70 percent lower wages, unsafe conditions and no return ticket home."

According to Maguire, the company also cut workers’ food rations down to bread and tea, pushed them to work unsafe hours and did not consistently pay them for their overtime. Maguire said the calculations showed the seafarers had been paid as little as 75 cents per hour for the hours they worked. At least one seafarer, a cook, had a reported take home pay of just 40 cents per hour. He was paid for seven hours per week, despite working 98-hour weeks.

Altogether, the ITF estimates Goundar Shipping owes the seafarers more than $200,000 in unpaid wages.

“[These] illegal pay cuts kept these seafarers too poor to afford tickets home. They’re trapped there – working for a man they despise. And if they complain, his company sacks them and dumps them at the nearest port with absolutely nothing,” said Maguire.

Goundar Shipping encountered crewing challenges last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and at one point in November, four of its ten vessels were idle and anchored because of insufficient manning. 

“We have lost over $1 million from this, and we can’t get the Filipinos over because of the pandemic,” manager George Goundar told the Fiji Sun. “We just have to wait for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted, so that we can get our overseas crew. We don’t have any crew at the moment to man the four vessels.”

Asked why local crewing was not an option when Fijian seafarers are being recruited for foreign shipboard positions, Goundar said it was a matter of preferences. "Everybody wants to go on foreign vessels, and who is going to build up the local industry?” he said.