When you think of the phrase ‘vulnerable population’ do seafarers come to mind?

We had a ship come into port recently on which the crew had not been paid for 3 months. Because of communication difficulties and the complexity of systems in the maritime shipping industry, seafarers are vulnerable to a number of abuses. In this case, they weren’t getting paid for their hard work.

The ship in this situation came to Philadelphia directly from China, which takes about 5 or 6 weeks. During their voyage (and every voyage) they are cut off from the rest of the world. With no internet and no phone service, they are a floating island, unable to tell anyone what is happening around them.

Luckily for this crew, their first stop was here in Philadelphia. If they had stopped somewhere in the developing world, they most likely would not have been able to get help. We are lucky here in Philadelphia that our Seamen’s Mission is well organized and has the resources to help with these sorts of problems. Many places in the world, these seafarers would have continued to be on their own.

So now that they are here in the United States, how do they go about getting their back pay? The way the payment system works for seafarers is that the majority of their pay is automatically sent to their agent in their home country, who then puts it (hopefully) into a specific bank account so that the seafarer’s family can access it.

If the seafarer wants cash on board, he must request it from the captain with enough time before the next port so that the company can send it along via the agent on the US side, who gives the money to the ship’s captain, who then distributes it to the seafarers. It’s complicated. There are a lot of steps and different parties involved, and therefore much more room for fraud and abuse.

Put yourself in the shoes of a seafarer. Who would you go to for help? The captain has a lot of power and could make your life a lot harder if you were to get on his bad side. The company is a huge shipping conglomerate and you’re not sure who you would even contact. On top of all this, you speak a different language than most everyone else on board.

That’s where the Seamen’s Church comes in. As a third party, we can come onboard assess the situation and figure out what to do. Most of what we do is make sure that the captain and the company know that we’re not going away until the issue is resolved. We contact the International Transportation Workers Federation representative for our area and make sure they are aware of what is going on so they can be prepared to serve as an advocate if needed. We act as a constant support to the seafarers as we all work together to fix the problem.

We’re happy to report that the situation we encountered was resolved without incident, but it will surely not be the last one like it we see. We’ll be ready for it. We’re prepared, day in and day out, to take some of the vulnerability out of the lives of seafarers.