Many cases of sailors being outright cheated, stranded abroad with no job, or forced to work on vessels they had not agreed to have been reported in recent times, prompting accusations that the government has not properly protecting its citizens.
But U Thaung Kyaing, deputy director general of the Ministry of Transport, says the rot is about to stop.
The trigger for moves to clean up the sector has been the signing of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, which parliament approved on August 28.
The convention is an agreement to secure consistent working conditions and rights for sailors from all signatory nations.
It became effective in August 2013 and its 30-plus signatories represent about one-third of the world's shipping.
U Thaung Kyaing recently delivered a blunt message to recruiters holding a Seafarer Recruitment and Placement Services licence: Fail to follow the convention and you’ll be shut down.
He conceded that regulation of the sector had been lax prior to the signing of the convention.
"We have been loose with some companies and let the owners regulate themselves but … that will have to change," he added.
He said recruitment companies often acted just like "brokers" and showed little regard for their clients.
"Most seafarers come to us to complain but it’s difficult for us to solve their problems. Some are aground in Malaysia and some are facing troubles on fishing ships. There are many incidents where companies turn a blind eye on the rules we have set. It is not okay just to take money like a broker. If you hold a licence, you need to offer a service," he said.
"There have been loads of complaints letter so far. Recently, one seafarer whose hand was cut in an accident said he had to pay for the medical expenses himself. [Companies] are not taking responsibility. They don't know what is happening to their seafarers and don't do anything for them … It's terrible.
"It's not like in the past where seafarers just stay silent, without making any complaint. Now seafarers are learning about the recruitment company’s responsibilities. They are right … Companies need to change their service."
He said the government plans to introduce new requirements for recruitment companies, including licensing and training abroad.
"We will change our licensing system … We will insist that recruitment firms are trained and take their exams in Singapore. Licences will not be issued unless you pass the exam."
But he urged the companies to mend their ways immediately of their own accord.
"I don't want you to do it because I force you to. I want you to do out of your own awareness and will," he said.
Myanmar has more than 98,000 registered seamen, of whom only around 30,000 are on board a ship at any one time.
The lure of a decent income abroad has encouraged many people, particularly from rural areas, to spend thousands of dollars - often their family's entire savings - to train as a sailor and secure a job on a ship.
Salaries on a shipping vessel start at a few hundred dollars a month for new sailors, and rise to several thousand a month for those with extensive experience.
But more competition for places has left aspiring sailors vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous agents.
Ko Chan, a sailor working for a South Korean shipping line, said being cheated is an unfortunate part of the industry.
"I got screwed the first time I worked as a sailor – both my brother and I got arrested in Malaysia, after a shipping company lied to us that there was a job there," he said.
"And the company cheated us, paying us only K5.4 million instead of the K6.4 million we were owed. We also got stranded in Malaysia for a long time. That was the biggest loss - the time. We can’t ever get it back.
"But it's okay now. I’m working for a Korean line, which has been honest, and I love it. I like my job a lot, even though I miss my home."
But recruitment firms have their own complaints. Because of the tight job market, prospective sailors often lie about qualifications, they say, while others lack the discipline for the work.
A representative of a licensed recruiting company, who asked not to be named, said it is a difficult time to find work as a sailor.
"The market is dropping, even for experienced sailors and cooks," he said. "And we always have to tell new workers not to get into fights, drink on vessels and so on."
He said the seamen sometimes cheat the recruitment firms by changing ships before their contract is up.
U Kyaw Myint Oo, general secretary of the Myanmar Seafarer Employment Services Federation, said sailors need to understand that they have to follow strict rules when working abroad.
"I want to tell would-be sailors that this is a tough market and job. You can’t chew betel or drink onboard because you will get caught if there’s a urine test," he said.
Deputy general secretary of the Maritime Workers Federation U Ye Win Tun told The Myanmar Times that it is important that whatever changes are made become real, not just changes on a piece of paper.
"It makes no difference if maritime policies change, we will wait and see whether these words are true or just on-paper promises. Even though there is an SRPS, which issues licences, it remains to be seen what difference it makes," he said.
U Thaung Kyaing said the convention would make sailors better workers by giving them legal protection, regardless of where they sail.
"It's designed to makes their lives on the ships easier," he said, "and to give them their rights."
Source: Myanmar Times
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