“The crews of Ukrainian ships impounded in Mauritania refuse to go ashore unless paid their wages.” “ The M. V. Princess Sarah, with a crew of 18 including eight Ukrainians, was seized by a pirate gang. The pirates demanded a $200,000 ransom.” Reports of this kind regularly hit our headlines. Meanwhile, very few know why Ukrainian sailors find themselves on vessels flying the Maltese, Greek, and other flags. Of course, everything is clear in general, as far as the regional peculiarities of Ukrainian unemployment are concerned: Ukrainians from Transcarpathia illegally go to Europe, while those from traditional “maritime” regions find employment on foreign vessels.
This is nothing new: even in the late eighties in what was then the Ukrainian SSR, due to the shipbuilding crisis, sailors gradually began to apply to foreign ships. The state-run Ukrainian Black Sea Shipping Company claims it used to receive, before the mid-1980s, about 20 vessels annually, which enabled it to offer on-the-job training and, accordingly, employment for about 1500 maritime academy students. However, as Serhiy Chernykh, Ukrainian Black Sea Shipping personnel and social issues manager, told The Day, “starting from the mid-eighties, the delivery of vessels went into a steep decline, while educational institutions continued to train personnel, thus creating an oversupply of workforce on the sea labor market.” Following this, the fleet management decided to hand over a portion of its vessels and crews to joint Soviet-Greek and Soviet-Vietnamese ventures so that sailors could find work. This being the first experience, Mr. Chernykh says, nobody knew how to fill out applications, seek an exit visa, receive a foreign job license, etc. As a rule, individual hiring was not practiced, and the maritime trade unions would press that complete crews commanded by Ukrainian officers be hired. The reason was, Mr. Chernykh said, that the sailors were completely unprotected because they did not know the language and customs of the foreign country, etc. However, it was obvious that ship own ers found such package hire unprofitable, for they were only interested in employing highly skilled sailors and commanding officers. This was precisely what gave birth to the so- called crewing agencies. As The Day was told by Pandelis Kouoris, director of the Panigo-Ukraine Crewing Company, his company hires crew members for cargo and transport ships. According to him, shipping companies find it advantageous to hire Ukrainian sailors because the latter are very well-trained.
And, Mr. Kouoris says, it would be wrong to stress only on the financial side of the matter, claiming that they are paid much less than their counterparts from other countries (depending on their skills and the type of ship, Ukrainian sailors are paid from $400 to $4000 a month).
There are quite a few crewing agencies in Ukraine: about 220 are registered in Odesa alone. They help, at various estimates, from 40,000 to 100,000 Ukrainian sailors to get work on foreign vessels every year. Incidentally, they have brought over $1 billion in revenue to the Ukrainian budget over the past ten years. Yet, Mr. Chernykh continues, only a tiny faction of them are really reliable firms regularly dealing with the foreign employment of sailors, usually on the basis of a long-term contract. The rest are far less productive, handling only five to ten sailors a year. These companies enjoy the status of private enterprises registered in Ukraine and having foreign employment licenses. Once they find a foreign ship-owning partner, they supply the latter with sailors.
However, this kind of sailing often winds up on the reefs. For example, Mr. Chernykh claims, now crewing companies gradually increase their demands on customers and often refuse to hire ordinary seamen, preferring to deal with officers. Under these conditions, sailors have no alternative but to use the services of any company that will have them. For, according to Mr. Chernykh, “a huge number of go- betweens and dealers run around the companies and offer work, but one should give them a wide berth.” Mr. Kouoris confirmed this and added that there were instances when some small, sometimes even unlicensed, agencies hired people for foreign vessels and later on people encountered serious problems and even disappeared. But in any case, he says, all, including Ukrainian, sailors are protected by international law and should be insured.
And to receive employment and social security guarantees, the individual himself should not be a babe in the woods, Mr. Chernykh noted. The sailor should check if the company has a license, foreign-trade contract, and agreement with a maritime trade union that exercises oversight over the company to make certain that the contract will be observed. It also often happens that a sailor agrees to sign the contract not in his fatherland but on arrival in the partner country, where he has no option but to accept whatever conditions are offered. This should be avoided at all costs.
Valery KINIAKIN, chief, fleet department, Ukrainian Trade Union of Maritime Workers:
“High on the agenda now is the legal and social protection of our sailors working for foreign shipping companies. There are certain circumstances when the ship owner can evade responsibility very easily (unless, of course, a collective or employment contract has been signed). For example, it often happens that the ship is registered with an offshore company in one country, is actually managed from another, while the ship owner resides in a third. In the overwhelming majority of cases, all these entities are three entirely different companies de jure but belong to the same person de facto. The bulk of claims sailors raise against ship owners are, as a rule, about nonpayment of wages or compensation to the families of sailors who died in the line of duty and those who suffered from an act of God. This is this kind of grievance that sailors most often take to trade unions. Over the past two years, the Ukrainian Trade Union of Maritime Workers has helped sailors and their families get about $1.6 million in wages and compensation. I would also like to note the irregularities in Ukrainian law, in particular, the absence of any kind of government body to supervise the hiring of sailors for foreign-owned vessels. The bodies that issue licenses to crewing companies (the State Committee for Employment at the Ministry of Labor) is currently unable to supervise the further activities of these companies. Unfortunately, there were instances when sailors were asked to sign a contract on being employed on less than seaworthy or impounded vessels without food or fresh water, or even on those that do not exist at all. The Ukrainian Trade Union of Maritime Workers periodically inspect the vessels riding at anchor in the ports of Ukraine. Such inspections are carried out most actively during ITF (International Transport Federation) Action Weeks. Incidentally, Ukraine was put on the list of ITF Action Week host countries only two years ago.”
Volodymyr LANK, chairman, Society to Promote Maritime Employment and Protect Social Interests:
“There is a document called ‘Regulations for Licensing Foreign Employment Mediation,’ which sets out the necessary licensing conditions for various, including crewing, companies. The document gives an exhaustive description of all the paperwork requirements and the relationship between the employer, mediator, and employee. Thus every enterprise should be licensed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Policies as an employment mediator and have a permit to employ the citizens of various states. This paper confirms that the employer or the go-between is not a charlatan and is authorized to offer employment services in accordance with employers’ requests. The situation is quite clear from the legal standpoint. Yet, these regulations are not always fulfilled. Besides, Ukrainian sailors are often unaware of all the requirements and fall victim to semi-legal companies. In fact, the customer who comes to a middleman company should see its registration certificate, licenses, and other documents put up in a conspicuous place, so he can make sure this is an authorized and lawful company. For he pays quite big money for services, about a thousand hryvnias on average. The company customer should also acquaint himself with the contract terms and conditions, so that he will not be given work entirely different from what he expected. And one of the main conditions is not to make any payments until you sign the contract. In addition, it happens that a sailor goes abroad on his own to seek a job, and in this case, should any problems arise, there is nobody he can turn to for help: he will have to wriggle his way out by himself. But if he goes abroad under contract, he can turn to the mediator or the organizations mentioned in the contract, while the employer, in case of bankruptcy or impoundment of his vessel, is obliged to repatriate the crew at his own expense.”