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Abandoned crews languish as cases drag on

Only 27% of cases linked to abandonment have been resolved, a joint industry database shows, while one third are unresolved and an even larger percentage are being disputed

The International Transport Workers’ Federation has recovered $45m in owed wages last year alone; a significant figure given the challenges

SEAFARERS are continuing to languish as abandonment cases fail to get resolved in a timely manner, if at all.

Of 272 cases of abandonment recorded in an industry database in recent years, only 74 have been closed, while 90 remain unresolved. A further 100 are being disputed by one or more parties, while the rest are in an “inactive” state. Several cases date as far back as 2015.

While some or all crew were repatriated in a number of cases, they remained open due to outstanding wages due either in full or part. Some cases involved legal matters, which were taking a long time to get through the judicial systems of the countries in which the vessels were abandoned.

The pandemic has also caused some problems.

Cases of abandonment reached a record high last year, a trend that has continued into 2021, as owners increasingly face financial strain owing in part to the pandemic, combined with increased costs. Other factors may also be at play. 

In the 15 months to the end of March this year, 111 cases were reported, according to the International Maritime Organization, which runs the database with the International Labour Organisation. Since April, a further nine have been reported, bringing the total to 35 for this year alone. 

In total, the database now holds 509 abandonment incidents since it was established in 2004, concerning 6,933 seafarers. Of those incidents, 244 cases were resolved, 121 cases were disputed, and 50 cases were categorised as inactive.

Abandonment occurs when shipowners fail to pay wages for at least two months, or when they fail to cover the cost of repatriation, or they leave the seafarer without maintenance and support.

The situation has even drawn mainstream media attention, given the appalling conditions the crew on board these vessels have had to endure.

In one instance, a young seafarer was appointed as sole legal guardian of a ship that had been left in Egypt. He was on board for four years, with no hope of being relieved. He had to swim to shore for meagre supplies, and was living in squalid conditions.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation union appealed publicly for his release in March this year. The ITF managed to secure his release, and the 33-year-old was on his way home to Syria a little over a month later. 

In another case, 19 crew members on board the vessel Ula (IMO: 8102414) went on hunger strike earlier this year. The vessel they were working on was abandoned in July 2019. 

The ITF says it has recovered $45m in owed wages last year alone; a substantial amount given the challenges associated with travel caused by the pandemic. It was involved with 60 of the 85 cases reported last year to the ILO and the IMO's joint industry database. That involves hundreds of seafarers.

The number of cases officially reported and recorded “is just the tip of the iceberg”, said the ITF’s inspectorate co-ordinator Steve Trowsdale, with many more happening under the radar.

“The pandemic has proven genuinely difficult for some shipowners who were already running marginally viable operations “some have struggled to pay for more expensive repatriation flights than those they are used to in order to get seafarers home, and the new cost of quarantine,” he said.

“But financial challenges faced by companies are no reason to suspend the payment of wages or not uphold seafarers’ human rights,” he said, adding that every dollar recovered is income that the seafarers and their families are counting on for their survival.

“This is money they earned, need and deserve. The ITF family won’t let employers rip seafarers off if we can stop it.”

Another factor contributing to the rise in abandonment cases is that flag states are not standing up to their responsibilities to seafarers, Mr Trowsdale added. “Flag states are supposed to ensure that ships that fly their flags are paying seafarers on time, repatriating them at the end of contracts, and providing the necessities of life”.

According to maritime law, flag states must ensure there is a financial security system in place to assist seafarers in cases of abandonment. When a flag state fails to repatriate seafarers, the baton is passed to the port state. 

Of the unresolved cases, Panama, the largest registry by tonnage, was responsible for 17, Togo had 10, Liberia had seven and Malta had six. Tanzania and Belize registered four each.

Togo, Tanzania and Malta registries were approached for comment. 

A representative from Panama said that owners, P&I clubs, and local authorities are part of the problem.

“We try to solve each situation as fast as possible, but sometimes, it is impossible,” such as when local authorities do not allow travel or even disembarkation, he said, while admitting that the number of unresolved cases was indeed high.

A representative from the Liberia flag says that it took the situation “very seriously”.

It requires proof of “repatriation coverage policy” plus “evidence of conventions compliance” when registering a vessel, he said, adding that not all flags carry this out.

For the cases it is linked to, it made sure that all seafarers were repatriated, albeit with some monies owed. Until all payments are made, the cases will remain open.

Although the vessels were no longer flagged with it, the registry keeps on “pushing to get solutions for the crew; we put a lot of resources into this”.

The registry recently cancelled 10 vessels from one European owner for Maritime Labour Convention breaches and wage issues. The owner then re-flagged with one of the other large registries.

And that is also part of the problem. 

In some instances, vessels are left stateless, which adds to the complexities.

“The issue of stateless vessels, the scale of which is unknown and unrecorded in the global commercial fleet, should be a cause for concern because if there is no jurisdiction emanating from the flag to be applied on board, there is no immediate ability to enforce against abuses while transiting at sea,” said Human Rights at Sea founder David Hammond.

Often, the crew are unaware that the vessel has been de-flagged.

The charity fighting for seafarers’ rights has published a briefing note to raise international awareness about this particular issue. It has also issued legal and practical guidelines for seafarers who face abandonment.

Cases include the asphalt tanker Sea Princess (IMO: 8607634), which has now been scrapped. It had been registered with the Cook Islands up to January 10, 2021, but was de-registered at the request of the owner as the vessel was due to be demolished.

Following de-flagging, a young Indian seafarer had taken his own life. While the detailed circumstances for the tragic incident which took place towards the end of January remain unknown, the emergence of the stateless nature of the vessel arguably added to the difficulty to arrange for repatriation of the body, according to Mr Hammond.

A representative for the Cook Islands registry says that it was notified by the owner on January 31 that there had been a misunderstanding and the vessel had to be delivered to India, therefore it requested Cook Islands to reinstate registration for the single delivery voyage. 

On February 6, the vessel was re-registered and allowed to carry out the voyage "only after verification of compliance with all applicable standards". Two months later, it was again deleted from the register at the request of the owner.

In the case of the vessel Ula, this bulker with 19 mostly Indian crew on board was de-flagged by Palau by mutual agreement to allow Kuwait, as a port state, to step in to try to resolve the issue.

Palau has been approached for comment.

The bulker Aizdihar (IMO: 8906846), abandoned in February 2020, was de-registered by St Kitts & Nevis, and re-flagged with Tanzania. 

A spokesman for St Kitts said the registry was not informed of the abandonment until October that year, some months after the vessel had been de-registered for “failing to pay flag state dues for two years”.

“We did attempt to rectify the situation with the vessel’s P&I club, but we were informed there was a problem with the Maritime Labour Convention repatriation documents and that the club was not carrying the risk at the time of our enquiry.

“Like the vast majority of the maritime industry, we abhor the abandonment of any vessel, which we strongly feel is both a practical and moral problem when it occurs.”

A spokesman for the Tanzania flag said it had asked the vessel's owner to ensure the constant supply of provisions, food and water.

According to a recent communication, the vessel has apparently been sold, with the new owner promising to pay outstanding salaries and ensuring sign-off of the crew, he said.   

Barrister James Turner, QC of Quadrant Chambers in London said it was not really fair to say that flag states are failing in their responsibilities towards the crew if they have signed and implemented the Maritime Labour Convention.

“The problem is under-resourced shipowners, based in jurisdictions with few barriers to entry and fewer regulatory controls on employment, trying to make a few last bucks from ageing tonnage,” he said. “You could theoretically introduce capitalisation requirements, but that would be anti-competitive, hard to police and open to corruption.”

“What, in short, the regulations are not terribly good at regulating — and states are reluctant to pay for — are the consequences of non-compliance, where shipowners simply walk away or disappear.

“I am sure that there are unscrupulous villains out there who should not be allowed to run a shoe shop, much less a ship. It’s just I do not see how one can legislate against or police those who operate at the margins of any industry.”

This article has been updated with additional comments

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