by Douglas B. Stevenson, Director, Center for Seafarers’ Rights
The House of Representatives in the US Congress is considering legislation that would effectively bar foreign seafarers working on cruise vessels from protecting their legal rights to be paid wages, medical and disability benefits, and their survivors’ death benefits in US Courts.
Section 404 of HR 2838, the Coast Guard Maritime Transportation Act of 2011 [link], would deprive foreign seafarers of the benefits of United States courts to protect their rights to recover for personal injury, illness, and death while employed on passenger vessels, if a remedy exists under flag state or their home country law. All seafarers are entitled to free medical care for any illness or injury incurred while employed by a vessel, and they are entitled to a safe workplace. Seafarers’ rights to medical care date back to the middle ages and are designed to encourage shipowners to protect seafarers’ health and safety and to induce employment in the merchant marine. The proposed provision would deprive many seafarers on passenger vessel of any effective remedy when shipowners fail to provide them medical care or protect them from unsafe conditions as required by law.
Section 609 of HR 2838, the Coast Guard Maritime Transportation Act of 2011 [link], would limit the amount of penalty wages passenger vessel operators would have to pay seafarers on passenger vessels for failing to pay seafarers’ wages without just cause. The current version of the law limits penalty wages only in class action cases. The new proposal would extend the limitations on penalty wages to individual seafarer’s claims for non-payment of earned wages. The purpose of the penalty wage statute is to secure prompt payment of seafarers’ wages and thus protect them from the harsh consequences of arbitrary and unscrupulous actions of their employers. Courts have imposed penalties under the law only when employers have acted in a dishonest or high-handed way.
Sections 404 and 609 of the HR 2838, if enacted, will greatly diminish foreign seafarers’ ability to protect their fundamental rights to earned wages, medical care, and a safe work place on passenger vessels. The maritime industry—especially the passenger vessel sector—depends upon the labors of foreign seafarers. When deprived of their fundamental rights, they need the protection of an effective remedy in United States courts. Although remedies may exist in flag state or home country laws, such remedies are often illusory or ineffective. United States-based passenger ships, the United States cruise industry, United States passengers, and United States ports depend on foreign seafarers. The United States owes them the protections under United States law that they need and deserve.
I urge you to contact your Representative in Congress to voice your opposition to Sections 404 and 609 of HR 2838, the Coast Guard Maritime Transportation Act of 2011.