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Report: Seafarers Charged $50 to $7,500 in Illegal Recruiting Fees

Seafarer recruiting fees
Seafarers reported in a new survey frequently being charged illegal recruiting fees to get their jobs (Mission to Seafarers file photo)

Published Jul 4, 2023 5:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new report is once again highlighting the frequency with which seafarers are being asked to pay illegal employment fees to get jobs aboard commercial ships and the potential impact on these sailors who most often are from emerging countries. Despite the practice being illegal under the Maritime Labour Convention, and previous reports on the use of these fees, The Mission to Seafarers is again reporting the widespread use of this tactic and using it as a basis for upcoming efforts to discuss seafarer welfare.

A survey of 210 seafarers conducted by Liverpool John Moores University for the UK-based charity shows that nearly two-thirds of the seafarers (64 percent) said they were aware of the practice. Although nearly all (92 percent) said they believe the practice should be stopped, more than a fifth of the respondents (21.4 percent) reported that they had been asked to pay recruitment or placement fees. When asked how the fees were described, more than half said it was a “service charge” while nearly a third said it was an “agency/registration fee” and nearly a third called it a “bribe.”

The average amount of money was $1,872 according to the survey with the demand going as high as $7,500 for a seafarer. The sums varied with the low end between $50 and $100. In addition, seafarers said in their responses that they experienced agents unlawfully withholding their documents, ranging from discharge certificates or seaman’s books to their passports or certificate of competency, in order to get them to pay the fees.

More than half of the seafarers who reported being asked for fees (58 percent) said it had happened with crewing agents appointed by the shipping company. A further third (31 percent) said it was an individual with links to the crewing agent. Another 11 percent said it came from an employee of the shipping company. Indian citizens were most likely (29 percent) to have experienced the demand as well as Filipino and then Burmese/Myanmarese citizens. Demands for the fees were made in India (36 percent of the cases) followed by the Philippines and then Burma/Myanmar.

“This report confirms what seafarers have told us informally when it comes to the scourge of illegal fees and charges that so many of them are being coerced into paying in return for employment,” said Ben Bailey, Mission to Seafarer’s Director of Programme. “Not only does the data shed new light on this phenomenon, the anecdotal feedback from seafarers also further reveals how widespread and damaging this problem is to individuals and their families.”

The report entitled “Survey on Fees and Charges for Seafarer Recruitment or Placement,” collected responses from a broad range of ranks working on ships. The respondents were primarily from the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka.

According to the executives of the charity, the result of the use of these illegal fees often creates stress and financial strain on seafarers’ mental health. They said it can also limit their career opportunities and exacerbate the industry’s labor shortages. They pointed to a burden for the seafarers that can trap them in debt or even lead to exploitative and abusive working conditions. Around 10 percent of seafarers the report says are still in debt because of these fees.

The report was used as part of the discussion at The Global Forum for Responsible Recruitment. Other sessions on seafarer welfare will be held as part of London International Shipping Week 2023. 

The Mission to Seafarers reports further work is ongoing which builds on a series of recommendations to tackle these issues. These include better definitions of fees and charges, and increased education and awareness. 

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) in April 2023 released the results of a similar study. Their report found that for a majority of seafarers, the violation of their rights and welfare began at the recruitment office where at least two-thirds were forced to pay recruitment fees to secure a job.

The Mission for Seafarers intends that its new report, along with the recent IHRB and SSI study, will inform discussion around amending the Maritime Labour Convention and other regulatory instruments dealing with the recruitment and retention of seafarers. The Mission to Seafarers also highlights that the scale of the problem also shows the importance of financial literacy for seafarers and their families.