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Until now lucrative jobs in foreign ships could only be routed through Indian Recruitment and Placement Services (RPS) agents recognized by the Directorate General of Shipping. This regulatory system was brought in place to prevent exploitation of seafarers and ensure that their wages, onboarding and repatriation costs, insurance and other services were safeguarded.

A recent ruling by the Madras high court has struck down this Merchant Shipping Notice of the DG Shipping and said this goes against the Constitutional right to practice any profession or carry out any trade or occupation. This means an Indian seafarer can be recruited directly by a foreign shipping company.

Indian seafarers account for nearly one-fifth of the global seafarer population but face stiff competition from Chinese and other seafarers for employment in foreign ships. Jobs in foreign shipping often pay two-three times more and easier availability of those jobs may help boost wages in Indian ships also. RPS companies often take a cut in the wages and are able to negotiate lower wages from seafarers eager for jobs.

Despite rules regulating RPS companies, many of these agents continue to fleece seafarers and unethically deprive them of salaries and benefits. Huge costs are imposed on seafarers especially to enter the profession. Some unscrupulous agents charge huge money upfront from those seeking apprenticeship in ships so they could enter the seafaring profession.

The court was hearing a petition that pointed out that the E-Migrate system introduced in 2018 prevented immigration clearance for any seafarer recruited directly by the foreign ship company. The rules say: “The seafarers who are recruited by unauthorized RPS and seafarers (other than senior officers) recruited directly by foreign ship owners shall be prevented from passing through the immigration checkpoints.”

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Justice R Subramanian said that the rules regulating seafarer recruitment could regulate unauthorized recruitment to ensure rights of seafarers were guaranteed. The Merchant Shipping rules could also prevent individual employment on a case-by-case basis by foreign ship companies but cannot provide for a blanket ban as it was against the Constitutional right to practice a profession. “No doubt, the object [of the rules] is laudable but at the same time, there cannot be a complete prohibition. There has to be a statutory power which enables such prohibition and prohibition would amount to a reasonable restriction on the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1)g),” the judge observed in his ruling.

Despite rules regulating RPS companies, many of these agents continue to fleece seafarers and unethically deprive them of salaries and benefits. Huge costs are imposed on seafarers especially to enter the profession

Reacting to the judgment, Sanjay Parashar, a member of the National Shipping Board, said RPS companies may see a dip in business as foreign ship owners will do direct recruitment of Indian seafarers with e-governance compliance of DG Shipping. There will be no impact on the certifying system of seafarers, he said.

The government of India certifies seafarers at various levels of competency based on a rigorous system of examination. This will function smoothly, according to Parashar.

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Offshore rig employment will see a boost as a consequence of this verdict, he said. “Overall this is a wakeup call to DG Shipping and Government of India to adopt new rules in a fast changing world,” he said.

New rules may have to be drawn up to certify seafarers since RPS agents were practically the only clearing house for certificates given in case of foreign ship employing Indian seamen.

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