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Companies Abandon Ships, and Crews, in Record Numbers

Companies Abandon Ships, and Crews, in Record Numbers
Bob Cronin, Oct 9, 2021

Workers often are stuck aboard as food runs out, with no way to get home

(Newser) – After the Ever Given was freed from the Suez Canal, its crew was held on the ship for four months while the owners agreed to a financial settlement with Egyptian authorities. It's not unusual in the shipping industry for crews to be detained or merely abandoned, without pay, with no way to go home. Such abandonments seem to be reaching record numbers, the Wall Street Journal reports, after more than doubling from 2019 to 2020, to 85. A union estimates that more than 1,000 employees are on container ships or bulk carriers now, abandoned, but the true number might well be higher. Some are stuck for years on ships that have run out of food and fuel.

Companies sometimes just abandon a ship when the cost of repairs is too high or they're deep in debt, partly because selling can take years, even if a buyer is found. Some governments make crew members stay on the ship until the owners pay fees owed to port authorities. Often, crew members don't want to leave anyway for fear they'll lose any chance at receiving back wages. In recent months, a United Arab Emirates company abandoned seven container ships and dozens of crew members it owes a year's pay. When the company is out of money, the employees can't collect and are left aboard a crumbling ship.

Conditions are brutal. Some of the 14 workers on a cargo ship that's out of food have thought about suicide. "We cannot survive here," an engineer on an abandoned ship off Iran said in a video. "Please help us." An official with the International Transport Workers’ Federation who receives dozens of pleading messages from crew members each day said, "It's a global humanitarian crisis." Four crewmen spent 32 months 12 miles offshore trying to stretch rations—"Breakfast, lunch and dinner, all we ate was rice," one said—before begging a charity for food.

Shipping industry laws and regulations, and the lack of accountability for shipping companies, contribute to the problem, per the Journal. The countries where ships are registered, called flag states, are supposed to make owners look after the crews—including supplying them with provisions, paying them on time, and repatriating them when their contracts are up. That doesn't always happen, and nobody enforces the rules, said the founder of Human Rights at Sea, an advocacy group. "The flag state hot-potato exercise helps people offload the problem—it's no one's responsibility," he said.