Slavery At Sea: The Ugly Underbelly Of Oil Shipping

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.

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  1. Vatch

    Wow. This reminds me of the forced labor scandals during the construction of the Yadana natural gas pipeline in Burma/Myanmar several years ago. One would think that there’s enough money in the petroleum and natural gas industries so that workers could actually be paid for their labor, but I guess greed wins (as usual).

  2. ambrit

    If you believe in the Greshams’ Dynamic as I do, this is a major warning. Those ‘indentured’ and exploited workers foreshadow our future status. The existence of this in First World businesses shows that Labour had better shift to Radical right quick. Management never gave anything up voluntarily.

  3. Ishmael

    To me this is more of an example of what happens when you do business with a company located in the third world.

    Owned by Mumbai-based GOL Offshore,

    Generally, my experience is when you start doing work for almost any of these asian companies you should be ready for them attempting to screw you out of your compensation. The only time I did work they had to pay me in advance. Afterwards they asked for some of their money back. Now don’t get me wrong they were ready to continue cutting the checks as long as they needed help but it was only after everything was done did they come back asking for a partial refund. I laughed my ass off at them and they started yelling obscentites over the phone which only made me laugh harder.

    You see lots of this in the US where these third worlders have settled. There have even been cases in Silicon Valley where an Israeli was paying the labor he brought in on h-1-b’s like $1.50 an hour.

    In WLA the place is over ran with nail salons which charge a fraction of what use to be charged. Everyone working in there is Asian. These places are either money laundering or using slave labor. There is no way they can run the business, pay the rent they are and conform with Cal. labor laws and make any money. But the city does nothing.

    Allow the migrant bosses to come in and this is the business practice

    1. ChrisPacific

      I always wonder about the (often handwritten) ads for jobs or rental properties that you see written entirely in another language, with no English translation. To me this says: we want somebody that we can easily isolate and control. If you are new in town and don’t speak the language or have any local family or contacts, you’re the perfect candidate!

    2. Felix_47

      Life is still a lot better in a nail shop breathing toxic chemicals in LA than in Mumbai or Calcutta or Kabul. As long as we have open borders, contrary to the politically correct, Gresham’s law will apply. It is hard to unionize when there are an unlimited number of scabs worldwide ready to take your place. If the oligarchs want open borders worldwide the Unions should demand the right to organize worldwide….it should be part of the trade agreements. Sure you respect Disney’s copyrights……but you also allow our Unions into your country to organize then you can export to the US. Can you imagine the prosperity in Mexico that would follow it the UAW could organize the Mexican auto plants?

  4. RBHoughton

    If that is happening in Aberdeen, imagine what’s the state of play in Libya and Turkey with the stolen oil exports!

    Tankers previously sold for scrap are being bought in the scrap yards (if they are still in class) and sent off to load one or two cargoes before they finally sink.

  5. Reality's Stooge

    I’m not surprised to read this. There was an in-depth piece last year in a major media outlet (it may have been the NYT, but I can’t recall atm) that explained how maritime law works. The gist of the article was if you want to kill someone or enslave them or do any number of things that the laws of most countries forbid, do it sea and if you take some basic precautions and know who to pay off when the ship docks and national laws come into play, chances are you will get away with it. It really does seem like our world is becoming unhinged, that basic civilities and respect are annoyances to avoid if at all possible.

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