“How would you like to come to my yacht and work for me? What? You would also like to be paid? How is an owner supposed to survive these days? Never mind, I can find people who will work for free.”
While written in jest, does this sound familiar? As regular readers know, the course of my daily work involves the representation of several yachting registries. In the past year, the most common complaint that our offices receive from crew is unpaid wages.
In the merchant fleet last year, there were about 1,500 complaints reported to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). This organization represents more than 700 unions in some 150 countries. Most of the complaints indicated that the crew’s employer was unwilling or unable to pay their wages. It may have been all of the crew who were affected, or it may have been only one person.
Even in the most horrific cases, most crew do get their wages in the end. Unfortunately, some crews are never paid. In rare cases, some of them have to wait for months or even years for a final settlement of their outstanding wages. In many of those instances, the owners involved will use bullying tactics, promises of future payment, or small advances on the total amount outstanding. By doing so, they are attempting to maintain the operation of their ship with the smallest possible investment.
One would think that such actions are unheard of in yachting, especially with the amount of wealth and high-value assets involved. Regrettably, we are starting to see an increase in these types of wage complaints from yachting crew.
First, as a crew member, you need to be aware of your basic rights. While the term is seldom heard in yachting, yacht crew are seafarers. As such, there are multiple international labor standards that provide for the protection of seafarers, including the most recently enacted Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).
MLC applies to all vessels of any size (including yachts) that are normally engaged in trade. Some of the crew protections include minimum hours of rest, repatriation, frequency of pay, and mandatory vacation. These international standards are implemented into the national law of the country in which your yacht is registered. While MLC compliance is enforced primarily on commercial yachts, many of the Convention’s directives may be applicable to crew on private yachts through the national law of the yacht’s flag of registry.
Second, before beginning any work on a yacht, get a contract. It is the best guarantee of proper employment conditions. Some key points related to your agreement:
• Never sign a blank or incomplete contract;
• Ensure that the duration of the contract is stated. It need not be a set date, but should explain
how the contract can be cancelled by either party. Many dismissed crew mistakenly assume
that two week’s advanced notice is a law;
• Never sign a contract that allows alterations to be made to the contractual period at the sole discretion of the owner and/or captain. Any change to the agreed duration of the contract must be by mutual consent;
• Ensure that the contract clearly states the wages payable, frequency of payment, and if any additional monies are owed (i.e. charter bonus, commissions, etc); and
• Never sign a contract that contains any clause stating that you are responsible for paying any portion of your joining or repatriation expenses.
Of course, there are exceptions to the above guidelines. From personal observation, whatever the terms and conditions, any contract or agreement that you enter voluntarily, in most jurisdictions it will be considered legally binding.
Lastly, what do you do if there is a dispute? Nearly all yachting flags have a system in place to deal with seafarer complaints. It is a requirement in the MLC. Approach the flag and see what type of assistance or guidance it can provide. When doing this, it is important to remember that there are three sides to every complaint: your side, their side, and the truth. As endearing as your telling of events may be, do not expect immediate action. A certain process must be followed to protect all parties involved. The flag must remain objective at all times. Patience is definitely the best virtue to use.
In addition, regardless of if the flag can assist you, crew members can always speak with an attorney. They are the experts in this subject and will certainly provide you with the best advice on how to proceed.
Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.