- Operations - Millions marked for unpaid crew

By Conor Feasey

Millions marked for unpaid crew

Nautilus secured over a million euros in unpaid wages for crew in 2023, but this year could see the union gain millions more in a single settlement…

Tackling legal challenges in the superyacht industry is no small feat, yet Nautilus International has reclaimed over a million euros in unpaid wages for its members in 2023. With eyes set on further growth in the coming year, the organisation is poised to contest the Alfa Nero case, potentially securing millions more in a single settlement. Despite the visibility of this case, Nautilus remains steadfast in its core commitment to championing crew rights at sea.

The seafarer union recovered over £1.3 million in unpaid wages and benefits for members in the superyacht sector last year. This follows a record year in 2022, during which the impact of sanctions related to the Ukraine War on Russian-owned superyachts inflated the figure to more than £2.75 million.

This is still significantly higher than the £943,000 in 2021, which was at the time the largest figure ever recovered by the Union in the superyacht sector and £720,000 in 2020. This reflects the continued membership growth in the sector as more yacht professionals come to understand the benefits of union membership.

However, Charles Boyle, head of Legal at Nautilus, explains to SuperyachtNews that the rise in these statistics isn't simply because more members are joining the union, contrary to what many might think.

“This number is not due to us having an increase in members but is directly attributable to the fact that there genuinely are more problems these days,” he says. “And what happens is that because there are more problems, more people hear about the work that we do, and then they might join us.”

Boyle clarifies the number of cases started to noticeably rise at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent ensuing sanctions. Due to the headline-grabbing nature of these cases, it sometimes detracts attention from the more orthodox, day-to-day cases that unions the likes of Nautilus handle regularly. These include but are not limited to, incidents such as unpaid wages, holiday pay and benefits, unfair dismissal, discrimination and physical and psychological injuries.

An example of such a case would be when an owner or management company refrains from paying a crew member wages, over alleged poor performance or malpractice. “These accusations tend to be completely fabricated and are just bare allegations. One of the more common instances is owners claiming that a broken down engine or generator is the fault of the engineer and refuse payment on that basis,” says Boyle.

The legal and yachting team at Nautilus then work with their trusted worldwide network of maritime lawyers and bring the matter to court. However, this typically ends in a settlement, when owners realise they will lose the case. “Often when the ship owner realises that the member has gone to their union and has actually taken them on and are not simply going to take this lying down,” he adds.

Sacking might result in the disclosure of other factors too, such as the employer not registering the crew members for Social Security benefits, Social Security payments, and contributions to the local jurisdiction. According to Boyle, this often happens in the south of France. If a Nautilus member has been dismissed in this context, the legal team are advised by a local lawyer, who then informs them of this extra leverage which presents another way of increasing the member’s compensation, simply because the owner didn't register the crew member in accordance with French national social security laws.

“When we have claims in France, the law is very favourable towards employees because there are quite significant levies imposed as a way of increasing the punitive measures on the owner for various failures to comply with social security laws, which often results in large amounts of compensation for the member,” adds Boyle.

“I’ve also noticed an increasing tendency now for personal injury claims coming from the yacht sector,” he continues. “These vary and range from cases such as back injuries from being told to carry heavy equipment without the proper safety measures or even from a lack of training on safe lifting. There have also been a number of psychological injuries due to alleged overwork loads, and other physical injuries resulting from, for example, accidents while using or handling the yacht’s tenders.

Securing settlements does come with its challenges, however, especially considering the trans-jurisdictional nature of the yachting industry. For context, if a member filed an injury report whilst on board a ferry company in the UK, the jurisdiction in which the claim is made would be in the UK too. In yachting, however, it is vastly more complicated due to the fragmentation of employment connections.

For instance, a union might receive a claim from a British member who lives in South Africa, working on a Cayman Island-flagged yacht, where the employer is based in Monaco and the ship owner is registered on the British Virgin Islands. Then the contract of employment could have an applicable law clause stating that only the laws of Bermuda apply, with a jurisdiction clause stating that any disputes are to be resolved in Antigua.

“So, you have all these different nationalities, jurisdictions and factors involved in the yachting sector, so it is incredibly challenging figuring out where to take the legal action,” says Boyle. “We also need the resources, hence why we have a bank of great and seasoned lawyers in these jurisdictions whom we have used in the past. There are also many in our international legal directory(which members can access in emergencies), and they are pre-authorised to spend a certain amount of funds in order to help their cause.”

Working alongside Nautilus’ dedicated yachting team and the likes of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) who operate the Nautilus 24/7 helpline also pay dividends when securing a settlement of any kind for a member, he adds.

“We are proud to have once again helped so many members receive the pay they deserve,' adds Derek Byrne, head of the Union's yacht sector. “As well as offering this assistance, during 2023 we also continued to increase the services and protections that we offer to maritime professionals working onboard superyachts, including the launch of our new digital tool for logging sea service Nautilus SSR.”

Nautilus recently secured a settlement in favour of its members working aboard the abandoned Alfa Nero following an Antiguan High Court judgement. As a result of the lengthy legal battle, the crew are set to receive more than a year’s worth of unpaid wages. The Union has also taken the case to the Court of Appeal regarding the monies which the High Court ruled were irrecoverable. If successful, the total amount recoverable could be nearly €2.5m.

The first ruling was a huge victory for the union and its members. However, High Court Judge Nicola Byer dismissed several of the claims which ultimately resulted in the members not securing the total amount they believed to be owed. This could change, however, as Boyle confirms the story is not over yet, with the union having appealed for sums arising out of promotions by the captain, gratuity claims, travel expenses and double pay.

“Aside from everything we do with our yachting team, lawyers and other partners in the industry, we can do the work that we do because crew are more self-aware and standing up for themselves, whilst 30 years ago, that wasn’t the case. People would be too scared to be labelled as a problem or a troublemaker, simply for speaking out for what’s right,” says Boyle. “This shows that the mentality of crew is moving in the right direction, and we are always available to offer round the clock support to any of our members when a situation arises.”

Attitudes have changed in the working world, and with vast amounts of education in place to prevent bullying and harassment on board, the crew are now more aware of the opportunities and support available to them from the likes of Nautilus. As we progress through 2024, Nautilus is poised to break its record of recovered fees from the Alfa Nero case alone, but remains focused on maintaining their core values of fighting for all crew and their plights while at sea.

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