Study: Manning Agencies Exploit Seafarers with Illegal Recruiting Fees

seafarer exploitation
Study calls for end to exploitations of seafarers through illegal fees, scams and fake job offers

Published Apr 18, 2023 4:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

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.

Notably, of those who experienced illegal charging of recruitment fees, the large majority (71 percent) did not report it, in most cases because they didn’t know where to report such abuses. Of those reporting being charged recruitment fees, 45 percent were officers, 16 percent were cadets, and 39 percent were ratings.

The research contends that manning agents and brokers in countries where desperate unemployed jobseekers would do anything to secure jobs in ocean going vessels have turned recruitment processes into money-making schemes not only by charging recruitment fees but also by scamming applicants with fake job offers. Over a quarter, 27 percent of respondents, reported paying recruitment fees for job offers that turned out to be fake.

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.

Though the refusal to pay the recruitment fees meant no contract for jobseekers, 44 percent of those who had refused to pay reported being blackmailed by the manning agents. The most commonly cited tactic is threats by the manning agents to spread negative references to other agencies.

It adds that not only is it prohibited to charge recruitment fees for a job under the Maritime Labor Convention but the subsequent debt burden on seafarers can be a significant factor in the risk of forced labor. Respondents also reported experiencing corruption onboard ships, in education/training, promotion, and medical checks.

“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.

According to the study, banning the charging of recruitment fees to workers is a key way that companies can ensure better working conditions for seafarers. To end the illegal practice of seafarers being charged recruitment fees, the study is recommending that shipping companies must ensure that seafarers employed on board their ships have not been charged recruitment fees to secure their work contracts.

Other measures include the need for port authorities to investigate any reports of the charging of recruitment fees and for governments to ensure that manning agencies do not charge fees for jobs by enacting and enforcing penalties for such practices. Customers of shipping companies, including charterers, commodity companies and traders, and container cargo owners, the report’s authors contend must also carry out human rights due diligence in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 

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.