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Yemen: seafarers in the firing line

12 January 2024

Attacks by state actors on merchant shipping are once again putting maritime professionals at risk. Rob Coston reports on the threat, and how the industry is responding

Since the latest war between Israel and Gaza began on 7 October 2023, attacks by Palestinian-aligned actors in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean have put seafarers at risk during voyages through the Suez Canal.

These attacks are against vessels which are claimed to have links to Israel or that have called at Israeli ports and are claimed by the Houthi government in Yemen, although in some instances these links have been tenuous or have subsequently proven to be false. There has been an associated increase in opportunistic attacks by Somali pirates.

As a faction engaged in a long civil war with a Saudi-backed rival government in the south, the Houthi government has access to military resources and technical expertise including missile and drone technology. It also uses modern online resources to easily identify Israeli-linked targets and ships calling at Israeli ports.

Longstanding security arrangements designed to combat low-tech assaults by Somali pirates – such as armed guards and water cannon – are clearly inadequate when dealing with drones and veteran Houthi fighters. Video footage released by Houthi forces storming the Bahamas-flagged vessel Galaxy Leader by helicopter shows what seafarers are up against.

The attacks have caused several major shipping lines to stop sailing through the Red Sea and instead redirect vessels around the Cape of Good Hope or put sailings on hold.

'Many of the largest shipping companies by market share have suspended shipping in the Red Sea altogether,' says Nautilus head of professional and technical David Appleton.

'Whilst this is a positive step for seafarers employed by those companies, others are still having to face unacceptable risks transiting the area. Until such time as the safety of shipping can be guaranteed, shipping companies must ensure that the safety of seafarers takes precedence over any commercial considerations. In any case, seafarers should have the opportunity to disembark, if they choose, before their vessel sails through a dangerous area.'

International response

An international response has been put in place. The United States announced a multinational coalition to safeguard Red Sea shipping in December called Operation Prosperity Guardian, which the UK is also participating in. The EU is also planning to send a task force, and warships of several nations have intercepted and destroyed dozens of drones and several boats that were moving to intercept cargo ships in the area.

Until such time as the safety of shipping can be guaranteed, shipping companies must ensure that the safety of seafarers takes precedence over any commercial considerations

Major shipping companies have yet to resume sailing, however: despite an announcement on 24 December saying that it would return to the Red Sea following the launch of the task force, Maersk for example has continued to pause sailings.

'Even for those seafarers who are now being re-routed, this is not a good situation,' explains Mr Appleton. 'It means extra days onboard ship during the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope.

'A piecemeal approach to the security situation cannot ensure the safety of all maritime professionals in the Red Sea or an adequate global supply chain, even in the short term – and with no obvious conclusion apparent a long-term solution is needed.

'In December the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) – of which Nautilus International is an affiliate – joined with the European Community Shipowners' Associations in calling for immediate action to urgently address this alarming situation. They asked authorities to enhance protective structures for the security of commercial vessels transiting through the area, and for coordinated efforts, including diplomatic, to maintain freedom of navigation through the Red Sea and ensure seafarers can work free from the threat of attack. The United States's force to counter Houthi attacks is the beginning, but should not be the sum total, of this effort.'

Nautilus's role

As well as offering direct support to members affected by attacks or by extended time onboard, Nautilus has an important role to play as one of the three bodies that make up the UK's Warlike Operations Area Committee.

The WOAC consists of Nautilus, the RMT union and the UK Chamber of Shipping. It is an independent body providing a forum for shipping companies and seafarer unions to consider threat levels and monitor 'warlike activities' to determine whether war risk service clauses in collective agreements should be invoked.

Since the attacks began, the WOAC has met on multiple occasions, and has made the following recommendations to operators of the vessels listed below. They should:

(a) allow any of their seafarers who choose not to proceed to the areas not to join the ship, or to leave the ship at a preceding port as appropriate; and
(b) make special payments to all crew members remaining onboard of 100% of normal pay in respect of each day during which the ship is within such a warlike operations area. Such payments are to be in addition to all other remuneration earned.

In addition, WOAC states that:

  • the existing National Maritime Board compensation levels should be doubled in respect of the death or detention of any seafarer working on a vessel in the area
  • companies should agree to underwrite any personal life assurance policies of seafarers serving onboard vessels in the warlike operations area that might become invalidated, as a result of their service in the warlike operations area

On 19 January the WOAC expanded the scope of its recommendations, so that they now cover any vessel which:

  • has an owner or management connection with companies that are owned in whole or in part by Israeli nationals, and/or
  • is owned by a company that is trading to Israel, and/or
  • has called at a port in Israel since 21 June 2023, or is scheduled to call at a port in Israel, and/or
  • has any other current established link to Israel, or has had at any time since 21 June 2023
  • has an ownership or management connection with companies that are owned by UK and/or US nationals, and/or
  • is registered under the UK and/or US flag

The recommendations apply south of latitude 16.5 degrees north within the Southern Red Sea, the Bab al Mandab straits, and the section of the Gulf of Aden west of 53°E and north of a straight line connecting Cape Guardafui and the western tip of the island of Socotra. They will be reviewed It will be reviewed by WOAC no later than the end of February 2024 or sooner if the risk changes.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Nautilus International has reached an agreement with Dutch shipowners to designate a large area around Yemen as 'gevaarlijk doorvaartgebied' (a high-risk/dangerous transit area).

This applies to seafarers, including trainees, under a Dutch collective bargaining agreement and work on Dutch-flagged ships. The shipping company must inform seafarers when their ship is to transit the high risk area and outline the risks and any protective measures it is putting in place. The seafarer then has the right to ask the shipping company to leave the vessel, and the company must attempt to facilitate this if the request has been put forward in a timely manner.


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