Raising Awareness on the Unfair Detainment of Seafarers
By the Rev. Marsh Drege,
Executive Director of Seafarers & International House
In the workforce, we take our rights for granted. We know what our legal rights are, in most cases, and we well understand what is expected of us at our jobs. We know we’ll never be held against our will, detained without reason, or arrested without cause.
That’s not the case, however, for the thousands of international seafarers who work in the shipping industry. They are often detained, arrested, and held for months while the U.S. Department of Justice investigates a ship that is thought to have polluted international waters or broken a law at sea. In cases when a crime is suspected, the crew is met by U.S. authorities when it pulls into port.
Detainment can be confusing and frightening to the workers on ships, many of whom are from third-world countries and don’t have labor unions supporting them. They often have limited English, don’t know their rights, or feel that they can’t speak up for themselves. They work for shipping companies that are registered in countries other than the United States, where the employment standards are often substandard compared to our own. These crews are low-hanging fruit and easily victimized in these cases.
You might not realize that very few shipping companies register their ships in the United States. That’s because they can get a better deal and are able to hire cheaper, non-union labor if they register their ship in Thailand, or a dozen or so other countries. U.S.-registered ships require that the owners hire unionized labor, at a much higher cost to the companies. Bottom line: It’s cheaper for shipping companies to do business outside the United States.
In addition to working conditions and wages being deplorable for many who work at sea, their protection and rights are often non-existent. These hardworking seafarers – many of who get on a ship in January and don’t return home for 12 months – often are treated unimaginably poor.
SIH is often asked to minister to seafarers who are being held by the U.S. government. Sometimes, a ship is thought to have purposely or accidently polluted the ocean, or done something illegal, and the merchant seamen are questioned or become witnesses in the case, even though they have done nothing. Sometimes, an investigation is being conducted, and seamen are greeted by police or the Department of Justice at the port and detained. Our chaplains have ministered to several groups of seamen over the years who were held in this country for months on end, without much information as to why they were being held or even the language capacity to understand what they were told. They often don’t know what their part in the investigation will be except that they were part of the crew.
One of SIH chaplains, Ruth Setaro, who ministers to the New Haven, Connecticut, port, tells me that quite often, the detained men are housed in a cheap hotel with no access to transportation. They sit – day after day – watching TV out of complete bored. They are isolated and miss their families back home, and are scared that they’ll be implicated in some part of the illegal act committed by their employer. They don’t often understand what is going on, and have no information about when they can return to their ship or their home.
In the worst cases, the seamen will lose their jobs and be labeled unemployable because they are now seen as whistle-blowers or snitches, even though they’re not. Setaro says they are alone, scared and bored.
In these cases, Setaro is relied upon as the only support system for these men. She invites them to meals at her home, takes them shopping and to run errands, and often arranges for activities to ease the boredom. She has been known to host the men at her home for holiday meals with her family, as well as have them over for popcorn and a movie. In one instance, she arranged for a group of men to paint a church, as they often want to be active and hate sitting around.
Why should these innocent workers be held when the ship has been allowed to leave port? Wouldn’t a better solution be to let the workers return home and detain the ship and the company owners? The Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice will detain members of the crew as material witnesses, while releasing the ship. The ship owner has to pay for the accommodations and food for the crew while it is detained. The DOJ considers this to be a protective action by the shipping company of its seamen.
This is backwards thinking. Detaining innocent people because they can, while letting the ship leave the port and continue on its journey?
This treatment of detained seafarers is neither protective nor fair. It’s just plain wrong.
Join me in calling for fair treatment of seafarers – both at sea and in our country.
You may copy this letter to send to your local legislator in Washington:
I’m writing to join the many Lutherans across the country who are calling for the fair and humane treatment of merchant sailors when they are in the United States.
It has come to my attention, that quite often, crews of merchant ships are detained in U.S. ports while the Department of Justice investigates something that may have happened illegally on the ship while at sea.
I understand that the crews, many of whom understand little English, are often made to stay for months in a limited hotel room if they are considered witnesses for the DOJ, while the ship, which perpetrated the crime, is allowed to leave port.
We wouldn’t tolerate such situations for ourselves, and we shouldn’t accept the same for visitors to our country.
We stand in solidarity with anyone who is treated less than fairly by the United States, and situations for detained seamen are deplorable.
Please use your authority as my representative in Congress to make my voice heard for the fair and humane treatment for detained merchant sailors.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
More information on this issue may be obtained on our website, www.sihnyc.org.
- The Rev. Marsh Drege is an ordained minister for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America