THE INTERNATIONAL Transport Workers’ Federation says 2023 was the worst year on record for both abandoned vessels and seafarers.

ITF inspectors conducted a total of 9530 vessel inspections and managed a total of 1188 cases across the world, recovering an unprecedented US$57,161,779 in unpaid wages.

In this context, abandonment refers both to vessels being abandoned by their owners, and to seafarers not being paid for at least two months.

“The significance of clawing back more than US$57.1 million in owed wages can’t be understated, especially when so many seafarers are the breadwinners for their families back home,” ITF inspectorate coordinator Steve Trowsdale said.

“Our inspectors are out there every day sending the message that the ITF and its affiliated unions will never let abuses of seafarers’ rights go unchecked” he said.

The ITF has a workforce of approximately 125 inspectors based in 110 ports around the world, including Australia. Inspectors police ships that have no collective bargaining agreement and enforce agreements on ships that do, covering more than 350 000 seafarers.

Many of these vessels fly under so-called “flags of convenience”, meaning the vessel flies the flag of a country other than the nationality of the ownership, according to an ITF definition. The union says this puts the crew at risk of poor safety and training, lower standards of living and working, and wage abandonment.

ITF inspectors are trained to look for signs of exploitation, overwork, forced labour and modern slavery. On some vessels they have the right to examine wage accounts, employment contracts, and to review recorded hours of work and rest.

According to the ITF, non-payment of crew wages could be a potential sign that the shipowner is preparing to terminate the crew’s employment.

 “The number of cases and amount of backpay is worrying, but we couldn’t be prouder of the work undertaken by our inspectors every day, all around the world,” Mr Trowsdale said.

“The sad reality is that the increasing amount of work our inspectors are doing demonstrates just how much workers’ rights are under attack on ships right now,” he said.