Plight of abandoned seafarers is ‘very critical’
The crew on board a bulker, which has been abandoned since July 2019, have been on hunger strike for three months as a resolution to their plight has yet to be found
A crew member from the abandoned bulk carrier, Ula, told Lloyd’s List that the situation has reached a critical point. The 19, mainly Indian, seafarers are feeling neglected and helpless, and suffering from depression
THE situation on board Ula (IMO: 8102414), a bulk carrier abandoned since July 2019, is bleak for the 19 seafarers left fighting for their rights and lives.
The crew, mostly from India, have been on hunger strike since early January this year, with no resolution in sight. They are surviving on water with several taken to hospital for treatment.
“The situation on board is very critical,” a crew member told Lloyd’s List. “Everybody is depressed and our families are suffering many problems because of no money.”
At this stage, the crew have not been paid, in some instances, for 12 to 18 months.
They are unfortunately not alone, as abandonment cases continue to mount, developing into a rather worrying trend.
So far this year, 26 cases of abandonment have been reported, according to the International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization. A further eight that occurred in 2020 have been registered this year.
That compares with a total of 85 recorded in 2020, which is more than double the cases in 2019.
The cases, which involve hundreds of seafarers whose lives are in limbo while resolutions are found, are often complicated. While some are resolved in a timely fashion, others have dragged on for many years.
Primary responsibility for the welfare and wellbeing of seafarers lies with shipowners, according to the ILO.
Under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, seafarers are considered abandoned when shipowners fail to cover the cost of the seafarers’ repatriation, leaves the seafarer without maintenance and support, or breaks ties with the seafarer, including failing to pay wages for at least two months.
Flag states must ensure there is a financial security system in place to assist seafarers in cases of abandonment. If the flag state fails to repatriate seafarers, the port state may arrange for their repatriation and recover the cost from the flag state, the ILO said.
Labour supply countries also have responsibilities, including ensuring recruitment agencies have a system of protection to compensate seafarers when shipowners fail to meet their obligations, it added.
According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation union, each case “turns on its own facts”.
Some cases are resolved quickly following a report to the UN agencies, as P&I clubs generally want a swift resolution to reduce costs, said ITF’s seafarers’ section coordinator Fabrizio Barcellona.
“However, some cases can take longer because the financial security has expired (or never existed) so the cost of repatriation will fall to the flag and/or crew may not be willing to leave the vessel without wages, which may require legal proceedings,” he said, adding that another common problem is that some port states will not allow the crew to leave without replacements being provided.
“When the owner has disappeared and a buyer cannot be found, or a mortgagee bank will not step in, there is no party prepared to pay the incoming crew. This means that the existing crew can be stuck for months.”
Neglected and helpless
The 1982-built Ula bulk carrier was abandoned in Assaluyeh, Iran, in July 2019, according to a database run by the IMO and ILO, which has documented cases since 2004.
The 37,227 dwt vessel, which was carrying a clinker cargo, was reported abandoned by the ITF in September that year. It was described as being in blackout with no fuel and with “a constant lack of provisions”.
At the time, there were 25 crew on board. Wages had not been paid for up to seven months.
While six seafarers were repatriated, 19 remained.
They went on hunger strike on January 7 this year after becoming “helpless and hopeless” regarding the non-payment of owed wages and repatriation. The owner of the vessel, Qatar-based Aswan Trading & Contracting, reportedly went bankrupt last June.
Its chairman, Nasser Hamed Al Nuaimi, is apparently wanted by police, the government of Qatar said in an update to the joint ILO/IMO database that catalogues cases.
Several calls and emails to Aswan Trading & Contracting and to its Doha branch Aswan Shipping requesting comment have been unanswered.
“We are all on hunger strike and we will continue until we receive our pending salaries and then sign off. We feel completely neglected. It’s not good to keep us in the dark,” the seafarer said. “We are all fighting for our basic human rights and we all demand justice on humanitarian grounds.”
Two crew members — an oiler and bosun — lost one of their parents each while they have been trapped indefinitely on this vessel. They were unable to attend the funerals.
“What we have received is false promises which hurts us even more,” according to the seafarer, who preferred not to be identified.
According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, the bulker was listed as heading for breakers in Alang, India, in February 2020 but that did not materialise. It was, at this stage, in Sharjah anchorage.
Ula, which was flagged with Palau International Ship Registry, based in Houston, then moved into Kuwaiti waters, finally berthing at Shuaiba port in April 2020. Flag certificates expired in May that year.
By mutual consent, Palau de-registered the vessel in September 2020, leaving it “stateless” to allow any other state, in this case Kuwait, as port state, to step in with the aim of expediting a resolution, the IMO said.
The International P&I club, in a filing to the joint database, said that the Palau administration that “granted registration services to the shipowner and approved the insurance provider, may now wish to review its list of approved insurers if they have grounds to believe that the insurer has evaded its obligations under the MLC”.
“That is a matter entirely in the hands of the flag administration.”
British Steamship, which had been insuring the vessel, said it cancelled cover in May 2019 due to “a breach of premium payment warranty”.
Lloyd’s List has approached Palau for comment.
According to the IMO, Kuwait has been working hard to facilitate a public auction of the ship. While a potential buyer for the vessel had come forward, negotiations fell through. The cargo has however recently been sold and is thought to be in the process of being offloaded.
Abandonment on the agenda
“The Ula case has only drawn public international attention because the remaining crew have taken what must be classed as an extreme stand in putting their health, wellbeing, and lives at risk to be paid what they are contractually owed,” said Human Rights at Sea founder and chief executive David Hammond.
“When looking at the monies owed versus the vessel and cargo value, they are truly insignificant in the big picture, again highlighting that people’s lives are second to financial and asset positioning.”
The IMO and ILO have been working to plug any gaps, with further meetings to be held later this year.
“We are extremely concerned by this ongoing case and the situation of the seafarers on board Ula,” an IMO spokesperson said.
“The IMO and ILO have been active in raising the issue, together with ITF, on numerous occasions with the relevant authorities, including most recently with Kuwait (port state) and Qatar (state of shipowner).”
The IMO said that the pandemic has probably exacerbated the situation, due to travel restrictions as well as difficulties with offloading the cargo.
“The issue of abandonment is serious and is on the agenda of both IMO and ILO,” the spokesperson said. “The ILO and IMO are doing what they can with the tools they have to bring cases to the attention of the relevant authorities so that action can be taken to resolve them.”
The International Chamber of Shipping’s director of employment affairs Natalie Shaw also expressed concern at the increasing number of abandonments and the extended time it appears to be taking to get the cases resolved.
Seafarers should check details of ship and company in advance of accepting a contract to make sure owners can fulfil their obligations, she said.
Industry sources said the IMO should be tougher on flag states for repeatedly failing in their obligations towards crew welfare.
Under the MLC, seafarers are only allowed four months of outstanding wages and four months of other costs incurred such as for food, clothing, medicines and repatriation.
Seafarers who stay on board longer in the hope of seeking greater remuneration may be doing so in vain, putting their lives at risk, the sources said.
The ITF said that flag and port states need to be reminded of their respective obligations to carry out and facilitate repatriation as per the MLC.
“Flag and port states should also impose penalties on owners who abandon vessels,” Mr Barcellona of the ITF said. “At present, flag states, especially flags of convenience, do not do enough to dissuade owners from abandoning vessels.
“It is too common that owners are allowed to see the welfare of the crew as the lowest priority when financial difficulties arise,” he said, adding that the union has witnessed financial security being cancelled on several occasions, with the flag state “failing to ensure that it is replaced, essentially allowing the vessel to operate outside of MLC compliance”.
Vessels should also not be allowed to reflag to avoid replacing cover when it is cancelled, he noted.
In addition, labour providing countries could become more involved in the process to assist their abandoned citizens and defend them from exploitation, he concluded.