Thursday, 25 July 2013

Myanmar Times: Raw deal for Myanmar's seamen

The Myanmar Times reports:
Myanmar sailors say they are being forced out of work by corrupt agents and brokers who get unqualified workers low-paying jobs on foreign vessels.
The popularity of the profession because of its relatively high wages has encouraged thousands to undertake training courses, which are a pathway into the industry. The number of qualified seamen has risen significantly since 2010, a number of sources said.

But they are being squeezed out because of unscrupulous agents, said Ko Nay Lin Aung, who qualified to work as an assistant engineer.

He said the practice of sending unqualified workers has become so common that it has coined the term “pavement broker” – someone who finds workers on the street, gives them a fraudulent Department of Marine Administration certificate and gets them a job on a ship.

“The agents keep most of the salary – the people they recruit are happy to get anything,” Ko Nay Lin Aung said.
“I have heard that there are about 50,000 illegal seamen like this and it has ruined the industry but the government has done nothing to solve the problem,” he said.

The unqualified sailors have to pay anywhere from K2 million to K5 million to be placed on a ship – some even sign over the deed to their home because they don’t have enough money to pay the fee.

“They do it because they believe that if they get work they can pay the broker back and get their deed back,” Ko Nay Lin Aung said. “But it doesn’t work out as they expect. Later they realise they have been lied to and they work on illegal fishing boats or old ships. It affects their family – the people who come from rural areas suffer terribly. Rural people sell or pawn their farms, homes and live at lodging house in Yangon to find agents to get work.”

He said qualified seamen struggled to find jobs because they command higher wages.
"Because there are more than 200 agents, we have to apply to 30 or 40 agents,” he said.
Myanmar has about 160 licensed shipping agents, and dozens more illegal agencies.
Ko Thiha, who works on a South Korean shipping line, said agents charge high fees but give sailors little in return. He said the industry had been “ravaged” by the rampant corruption and lack of enforcement.
“Some who are poor borrow from their friends to pay the service fees. Jobs are rare so they accept whatever salary they are offered,” he said.

A number of agents contacted by The Myanmar Times declined to comment. Ko Tint Naing Tun, manager of the Victory agency, said his firm only worked with about 10 to 15 qualified sailors that it trusted.

“Our company only works with old seamen, we don’t take on new people,” he said. “Jobs are rare and taking on new people can create problems.”

One organisation seeking to root out the corruption in the sector is the Myanmar Maritime Workers’ Federation, which was registered in May but has been helping workers for about a decade. Federation general secretary U Tin Ko Ko Thet agreed that the problem of illegal workers was widespread, and said recently three agencies had had their registrations revoked.

“Some Myanmar agents ask seamen to give broker fees but there is no need to pay for working on a ship,” he said.

Another seaman, Ko Soe Paing, who has worked for a European shipping line, said he hoped the federation would work with the government to crack down on lawbreakers.

“Because of Illegal seamen the new seamen have no jobs. I hope the federation can create opportunities for those following the rules by cooperating with the government to solve this issue,” he said.

But federation chairman U Chit Ko Ko said that when Myanmar’s sailors get on board a ship they face other challenges, including discrimination.

 “Myanmar seamen often suffer abuses,” U Chit Ko Ko said. “Because they have a very low level of proficiency in the English, they don’t understand official procedures. Most new sailors are in a rush to go to sea and usually do as their employment agency asks when they fill in an agreement, without carefully knowing the terms and conditions of the employment.”

Of Myanmar’s 80,000 qualified seamen, only 20,000 are working at any one time, with remainder either working in a different sector or looking for a berth.

Of the employed seamen, an estimated 5000 are officers and the remainder are crew members, the federation said.

U Ye Win Tun, the deputy general secretary of the federation, said Myanmar seamen suffer wage cuts and rights abuses more regularly than those from other Southeast Asian countries because Myanmar has previously not had organisations actively working to protect their rights.

 “It is a result of good management and their unity,” he said.

U Ye Win Tun said most Myanmar sailors are also not protected properly by the agencies that placed them on the ship.

“No one has the right to expel a seaman from a ship … unless they have committed a crime,” he said. “Some employers attempt to force the crews to leave from the ship. They don’t have the right to bully the seaman.”

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