Indian Seafarers in Search of Enhanced Security and Rights Protection

The maritime industry, vital for global trade, heavily relies on seafarers who face significant challenges and vulnerabilities in their line of duty. India, contributing about 9.35% of global seafarers and ranking third globally, has been facing a lot of challenges in addressing these issues. Incidents, such as detentions of Indian seafarers in different sensitive regions, piracy threats, and the most recent seizure of the MSC Aries with 17 Indian crew members by Iranian forces off the UAE coast, highlight the growing risks faced by Indian seafarers.

The detention of the MT Heroic Idun in 2022, a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker with 24 Indian crew members, in Nigeria on ‘oil theft’ charges further emphasizes the vulnerability of seafarers. Despite the crew’s eventual release, the incident showed the unjust criminalization and challenges seafarers often encounter due to flawed legal systems. A survey revealed alarming statistics, with over 90% of seafarers lacking legal representation, 81% feeling unfairly treated, 80% experiencing intimidation or threats, and 88.60% unaware of their legal rights.

India’s proactive stance on these issues was evident as it submitted papers to the 111th Session of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Legal Committee (LEG) to be held this month, urging the IMO to address seafarers’ security and contract terms. However, the need for enhanced international cooperation remains crucial to safeguard seafarers and ensure freedom of navigation, especially with increasing incidents involving Indian seafarers amid geopolitical tensions.

The Maritime Union of India highlighted the rising threat of maritime piracy, with a 40% increase in kidnappings in the Gulf of Guinea in 2020 compared to the previous year. During this period, 134 cases of assault, injury, and threats were reported, including 85 crew members being kidnapped and 31 held hostage. Such incidents, like the kidnapping of twenty Indian nationals from the MT Duke off Togo by pirates, emphasized the dangers faced by seafarers. Moreover, ship owners paying billions in ransom to pirates for the safe release of abducted seafarers further indicated the severity of the issue.

In response to these challenges, the Indian Government and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have been proactive with their ‘human rights at sea’ initiative. Reports highlight various cases, including seafarers held in foreign jails, stranded in foreign waters, and subjected to illegal detentions. The UK-based Human Rights at Sea highlighted cases of human rights abuses against Indian seafarers, including 200 Indian seafarers held in foreign jails, 65 stranded in Indonesia for 151 days, and over 82 stranded on three Mercator vessels with unpaid wages.

Indian Appeal to IMO Legal Committee 

Ahead of the 111th Session of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Legal Committee (LEG) scheduled for April 22-26, India has submitted three papers addressing critical issues concerning seafarers’ security, contract terms, and broader maritime security challenges. These submissions emphasize the importance of a comprehensive approach to maritime security and aim to enhance seafarers’ contractual conditions.

India highlights that while the IMO has initiated collaborative efforts to combat maritime fraud, the current focus of the Committee remains primarily on legal aspects related to piracy and armed robbery at sea. India stresses the pressing need for enhanced international cooperation, collaboration, and coordination to address a broader range of maritime security challenges, including piracy, armed robbery, extremist attacks, regional conflicts, and emerging threats like drone attacks and the use of maritime weapons.

Recent incidents off the coast of Somalia, including pirate attacks and hijackings, signal a potential resurgence of piracy in the region. According to the Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region, four hijacking incidents were reported in December 2023. Notably, Somali pirates hijacked a dhow, later used to attack the Malta-flagged vessel MV Ruen, and hijacked the Liberian-flagged bulk carrier MV Lila Norfolk in January 2024. India emphasizes the critical need for continuous vigilance, proactive measures, and international intervention to combat piracy, safeguard seafarers, and uphold freedom of navigation, in alignment with Article 100 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

India also addresses the detrimental effects of unlawful or fraudulent practices in the recruitment and placement of seafarers on seafarers’ protection, well-being, and international trade. Since 2020, the Indian Maritime Administration has received over 200 reports of seafarer exploitation, leading to abandonment, stranding, and other risks. India underscores the urgent need for an internationally-coordinated mechanism to address these issues and ensure seafarers’ access to essential protections and benefits as guaranteed under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in India had already deliberated on this issue. Sometime back, Dnyaneshwar Manohar Mulay, Member of the NHRC emphasized the need for proactive cooperation among stakeholders to address human rights concerns of Indian seafarers during an Open House Discussion organized by the Commission. Mulay highlighted challenges in holding ship owners accountable for human rights violations against Indian seafarers operating fleets under foreign registration to evade taxes. He stressed the importance of establishing mechanisms to protect and promote human rights for Indian seafarers in the maritime industry. Amitav Kumar, Director General of Shipping, also announced the formation of a committee to address complaints regarding sexual harassment of women seafarers. Complaints can be filed on the DG Shipping website.

Seafarers seek better protection and safeguards 

Maritime piracy poses a significant threat to Indian seafarers, who make up a significant share of the global maritime workforce. Currently, around 2.5 lakh Indian seafarers serve thousands of specialized cargo vessels across the globe as ratings (semi-skilled workers) and highly-skilled merchant navy officers According to the International Maritime Bureau, there has been a more than 10% increase in serious incidents of maritime piracy and armed robbery in the last 10 months. Pirates armed with weapons have managed to board approximately 90% of the targeted cargo ships, putting seafarers’ lives at serious risk.

Piracy, emerging from lawlessness on land, requires a comprehensive, land-based solution. While private guards on merchant navy ships can act as a deterrent to piracy, it presents challenges in piracy-prone volatile oceans, as pointed out by Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, a major employer of Indian seafarers. 

Reports also indicated that Iranian shipping companies, in collaboration with international recruiting firms, are exploiting Indian seafarers by deceiving them into working in dangerous conditions with inadequate pay. Recruiters attract thousands of Indian men with promises of high salaries and opportunities in other Middle Eastern countries. However, these seafarers are subjected to overwork, insufficient food, and forced involvement in transporting drugs and cargo under international sanctions. A few had shared their experiences of being deceived by recruiters, highlighting the challenges faced by seafarers who pay significant fees to secure jobs abroad.  

Despite the risks and challenges, many seafarers are determined to pursue their careers at sea, advocating for improved protection of their rights and well-being.

India represents only 9.35% of the global seafaring population but has the potential to expand its share in the seafaring industry to 20% within the next 10 to 20 years. Ship management companies have played a significant role in developing India’s seafaring market, with nearly 80% of Indian seafarers working for these companies. 

During the pandemic, Indian seafarers demonstrated resilience and professionalism, further bolstering India’s position in the global maritime market. The Ukraine/Russia conflict has also opened doors for new players to enter the Indian maritime sector.

Indian seafarers are expressing heightened concerns about their safety following recent dangerous attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea region.  According to some reports, the escalating attacks have left many Indian seafarers contemplating quitting their jobs due to growing security concerns, emphasizing the need for enhanced protection and support from the government.

[Representational image, by NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions in this article are those of the author.

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