Foreign Seafarers of
the Third World
By Tim Akpinar

Appearing in the
Feb - Mar 2005
Marine Officer

Reprinted with the permission
MEBA - Marine Engineers
Beneficial Association

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Foreign Seafarers of the Third World
By Tim Akpinar

Text Version

Seafarers from third world nations live and work under conditions that are in stark contrast to those of
U.S. flag vessels. Too often, these men and women are paid low wages, given poor living quarters
and food, have no legal protection such as the Jones Act in the event of an injury. These seafarers
are highly susceptible to being stranded without pay in foreign ports if their vessel comes under
arrest, or if the vessel owner becomes insolvent.

Going to sea is inherently hazardous and lonely under the best of conditions. But seafarers that
come from the ranks of the third world contend with further adversity in the way of inadequate food,
poor quality food, abusive supervision, unsanitary living quarters, poorly lit engineering spaces
housing exposed equipment, rusted and corroded catwalks and ladders, unregulated work
schedules, and the absence of systems for bringing grievances. Some crews are encouraged to
fish, not as light-hearted recreation to fill the off-watch shifts, but as a necessity of procuring a
palatable meal. They have very little access to voice their problems other than the compassionate
ears of chaplains that visit their vessels in port.

Many of these seafarers have no basic provisions for maintenance and cure, as provided by the
Jones Act. Maintenance is the safety net that pays a seaman’s living expenses during a period of
disability until they are able to return to work. Cure pays an injured seaman’s hospital expenses until
they reach maximum medical improvement.

Because employment contracts may stipulate arbitration in their home country as the sole venue for
adjudicating an injury, the scale of compensation for crippling injuries can be unconscionably low. In
the event of death, the seaman’s family can effectively be left with the loss of their breadwinner, as
they do not enjoy the protection of legislation such as the Death on the High Seas Act. The notion of
sending a crippled man back to his home country to fend for himself strikes us as a terrible
cruelty…but that notion is no stranger to these seafarers.

A factor that escalates such misery to a level of tragedy is that the home countries of these seafarers
teem with ranks of replacements that put themselves in line to earn a berth on such vessels,
knowing that they could endure hardship or abuse. They come from India, Eastern Europe, the
Phillipines, China, and other parts of the world where the poor desperately need work.

And the problem is not helped by the international nature of maritime commerce. As a ship may have
owners in one country, a flag of registry in another country, and be chartered to interests in yet
another country, the circuitous journey of establishing responsibility for an injustice is fraught with
frustration, and sadly enough, it is actually designed to be that way.

The multinational aspect is also apparent from the fact that officers will come from one nation and
their rates from a continent seven time zones away. So while the suffering of these seafarers can be
viewed as a problem in itself, it can also be seen as a symptom of something larger...a symptom of
the way it has become acceptable to provide labor for the needs of an ever globalizing world

Tim Akpinar, a SUNY Maritime graduate ('81) in marine engineering, has spent the last decade in his private law
practice in Little Neck, New York at the western end of Long Island Sound. He focuses on litigation and arbitration of
injury and complex property cases. Tim is a member of the Mariritme Law Association of the United States,
Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

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