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Despite the efforts of trade unions and NGOs, seafarer abandonment is on the rise

Despite the efforts of trade unions and NGOs, seafarer abandonment is on the rise
Annick Berger (ranslated from French by Brandon Johnson) 25 June 2021

“I didn’t think fate would be so hard on me.” Sahabaj Khan, an Indian seafarer, never imagined that he would find himself in a situation like this. He and three other seafarers spent nearly two years stuck on two ships owned by an Indian company, only a few kilometres from the port of Mumbai. They were without electricity and their ships crawled with roaches. “I began work on 18 December 2018, then in March [2019] I heard that the company I was working for was going through a rough patch. The owner was unable to repay his loans. That’s when things started to get bad,” says the young man. The duty officers left the ships but four seafarers, including Khan, had to stay on board to continue with maintenance. That was the beginning of their ordeal. Khan wouldn’t be able to leave his floating prison until February 2021, and then with only a portion of his wages paid, thanks to the help of the organisation Sailors’ Society.

Hundreds of seafarers around the world have found themselves in similar situations. The crew of the MT IBA were famously trapped for 43 months (about three and a half years) off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The problem is well known in maritime transport: according to the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), a seafarer is considered to be abandoned when the shipowner fails to cover the cost of the seafarer’s repatriation, has left the seafarer without support, or has severed their ties with the seafarer including failure to pay wages for a period of at least two months.

Already on the rise, instances of seafarer abandonment have spiked since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than doubling from 40 reported cases in 2019 to 85 in 2020, according to figures compiled by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Twenty-six cases have already been recorded since the beginning of 2021. “In most cases, crews are abandoned as the result of deliberate financial decisions by shipowners trying to avoid bankruptcy, insolvency or the seizure of their vessels by creditors,” a spokesperson for the IMO tells Equal Times. “In some cases, they decide that the cost of renovating their vessel is too high and abandon the vessel and its crew.”

To put an end to such practices, the MLC states that signatory countries must “facilitate the repatriation of seafarers working on board a vessel as well as their replacement.” As the spokesperson explains: “Member states cannot refuse the right of repatriation to any seafarer because of the financial circumstances of a shipowner or because of the shipowner’s inability or unwillingness to replace a seafarer.” An amendment adopted in 2017 included stronger language providing for “an expeditious and effective financial security system to compensate seafarers in the event of abandonment, long-term disability caused by workplace accident, or death.” However, this measure only covers four months’ wages, while such situations can drag on for much longer.
Stress, solitude and anxiety

Since 2006, the MLC has been ratified by 97 countries representing more than 90 per cent of the world’s fleets. But there is still a long way to go: some countries, whose ports are among the busiest in the world, refuse to sign the text. These include the Gulf States, in particular the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where abandonments have multiplied in recent years. According to the ILO database, nearly 40 ships have been abandoned in the UAE since 2017, compared to six in Taiwan and five in Spain. Shipowners are clearly taking advantage of countries with lacking regulation and abandoning their crews there. That’s where seafarers’ defence organisations such as the powerful International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and charities such as the Mission to Seafarers and Sailors’ Society get involved.

Abandonments are more likely to involve “medium to small companies with fleets of no more than ten vessels,” says Andy Bowerman, Middle East director for the Mission to Seafarers. While some shipowners acting in good faith try to solve the problem as best they can, for others, crew abandonment is an organised practice. Seafarers find themselves “on foreign shores with no income and no means of buying food, water or other necessities. The stress, loneliness and anxiety they experience can be immense,” Sara Baade, CEO of Sailors’ Society, tells Equal Times.

Abandoned seafarers often only have one bargaining chip to negotiate their wages: their ships. “The ship is usually worth a lot of money,” says Bowerman. “That’s the case with a crew we’re helping on a 500-ton tanker that’s about 10 years old and probably worth about US$4 million. The crew knows that the only leverage we have to negotiate the payment of their wages is the ship itself.” This creates “never-ending situations and leads to cases like the Syrian who stayed on his boat for years,” he laments.

He is referring to Mohammed Aisha, who spent four years trapped on the MV Aman. Aisha’s ordeal began in May 2017 when the ship was detained by Egyptian port authorities in the Red Sea for failing to present updated safety equipment and classification certificates. Aisha was officially declared the ship’s ‘legal guardian’ and his passport was confiscated by authorities. The rest of the crew was repatriated and he remained alone on board, without electricity. “I have to swim to shore every two or three days to charge my phone and get food and water,” he said in an interview with the BBC last April. He was finally able to return home when the ITF offered to have one of its representatives take his place. The ship was eventually auctioned off in March.

While Aisha was finally able to return to his family, others, such as Vehbi Kara, a Turkish captain trapped on board the MV Mete at the Egyptian port of Adabiya since June 2020, have not been so lucky. As legal representatives of their vessels, these workers are officially responsible for safety on board and thus forced to remain on their ships until they are sold to a buyer. “Unfortunately the legal process is not always quick and can last for months or even years,” laments Baade.
“They shouldn’t be made to pay for simply doing their job”

Instances of crew abandonment could be significantly higher than those recorded in the ILO database. “The problem we face is that crews sometimes don’t dare to report their situation,” says Bowerman. “They may go weeks or months without reporting anything.” Other cases are never reported to the ILO and are dealt with directly by seafarers’ organisations. “Sometimes it’s better not to report a case if you think the company is really trying to solve the problem,” says the representative of the Mission to Seafarers, which deals with particularly difficult cases. “In the United Arab Emirates, we walk a very fine line. If we apply too much pressure, the reality is that we may be forced to leave the country.”

“Seafarers need more protection,” says Sahabaj Khan. “They should be informed of their shipowners’ situation and shouldn’t have any problems if their employers go bankrupt.” Faced with such situations, “what can seafarers do? What have they done wrong?” he asks.

With 90 per cent of goods transported by sea or by river, Sahabaj’s profession is essential to world trade. But the world’s 1.6 million seafarers now find themselves in a significantly more precarious situation thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Longer contracts, lower wages, increasing cases of abandonment...the list of difficulties they face is growing. Yet Khan says he will go back to sea. “The difficult phases teach us hard lessons,” he says. But he advises seafarers facing similar situations to join a trade union to be better protected.

The ILO and the IMO have scheduled a new meeting for July 2021 to address the growing problem of abandonment and find ways to help seafarers trapped on board their ships. While new proposals are being studied, they are unlikely to come into force before 2022. In the meantime, hundreds of seafarers are waiting, sometimes for years, to be reunited with their families.