By Julianne Geiger, a veteran editor, writer and researcher for US-based Divergente LLC consulting firm. Originally published at OilPrice
The words “slavery” and “oil”, when used together, are usually reserved for use in the context of palm oil, but the offshore oil and gas industry isn’t immune to modern-day slavery—as evidenced by the detention of a BP-charted offshore oil supply vessel in Scotland, which was found to have a group of unpaid workers on its crew.
The Malaviya Seven offshore supply vessel (OSV) was detained in Aberdeen, Scotland, earlier this week, with trade union representatives calling it a “blatant example of modern day slavery”.
Owned by Mumbai-based GOL Offshore, the vessel was chartered by BP from 1 June to 15 June. Among its crew were 15 Indian workers who had been unpaid for months.
According to the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) the incident “exposes the shameful practices in the exploitation of our natural resources”.
These “ships of shame”, as RMT spokesman Mick Cash dubbed them, “are a blatant abuse of migrant workers […]” adding that such activities also act as “a catalyst for the dumping of UK seafarers, many thousands of whom are now drawing benefits from the state”.
The slave ship incident has now prompted another investigation into a second vessel owned by the same company, the Malaviya Twenty, which is at the British port of Great Yarmouth. Meanwhile, the Malaviya Seven will remain locked down at the Albert Quay until its staff are paid.
If you think slavery doesn’t exist anymore—think again. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), almost 21 million people are victims of forced labor today. Of those, nearly 19 million are exploited by private individuals or enterprises, compared to slightly over 2 million who are exploited by the state or rebel groups.
Overall, says the ILO, forced labor in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits every year. And while domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are the key sectors of concern here, the oil industry plays a role as well—and it’s a lot easier to get away with it at sea.
Determining responsibility is tough, though. The Malaviya Seven, for instance, had been chartered by a number of oil and gas companies, including BP—which came out right away to confirm its June charter of the vessel—as well as Premier Oil, which declined to comment to British reporters, and Dana Petroleum, which confirmed that it had chartered the ship “on the spot market” earlier this year.
The oil price crisis has had a hand in what could become a worsening situation, as supply boats find themselves in a position in which they can only afford … well, slaves.
The North Sea—where the Malaviya Seven was nabbed—is a prime example of how bad things have gotten. Charter rates for North Sea supply boats had reached such a low by the fourth quarter of last year that most vessels were said to be operating at a loss, forced to lay off crew and conserve fuel—at best.
It’s either sink, swim or do something illegal at this point, and although some may disagree, sinking should not be an excuse for slavery. Debt and default must simply be accepted.
As of the fourth quarter of last year, the number of British seafarers on North Sea vessels had sunk so low as to be negligible, according to Energy Voice, which quoted a North Sea trade unionist as saying that those seafarers were being replaced by Third World Laborers.
The vessels, according to the trade union, can no longer pay Norway-level wages and instead opt for cheap labor, most commonly from India, Indonesia and the Philippines. But paying these new workers is also proving challenging, and the situation is now metamorphosing into one resembling slavery.
The alternative is tying up tonnage rather than operating at a loss.
Last summer, a foreign crew of a Korean bulk carrier in Mackay, Australia, was found to have been forced to work without pay and denied access to food, among other basic rights. One crew member suffered from malnutrition, while four others left the ship, saying they feared for their lives. According to International Transport Federation (ITF) assistant national coordinator Matt Purcell, the crew—from Cambodia and Burma—had been “locked in hatches” and “survived on what I can only describe as a starvation diet”.
“The sea is a largely unregulated environment whereby greedy ship owners and operators are allowed to get away with egregious breaches of human rights […] ITF President Paddy Crumlin noted at the time.
The sea has always been mysterious—what lurks in the deep waters is both amazing and fearsome, but today what is floating on its surface is increasingly sinister. Greed and a global oil price crisis are combining to create a new wave of slavery for which the chain of responsibility is long and complicated. A handful of new vessel detentions could bring it out into the open to the point at which the big companies who charter these vessels might have to do a bit more due diligence.