Nineteen seafarers from India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Azerbaijan will be able to see their families again this week after the ITF’s advocacy brought their two-year ordeal to a close. One member of the MV ULA (IMO: 8102414) crew had even been trapped aboard the ship for 31 months.
The seafarers were left abandoned as part of a larger crew of 25 when the Ula’s owner, Aswan Trading and Contracting, stopped paying their wages and providing food, fuel and water in 2019.
2019: the ULA’s troubles begin off the coast of Iran
One seafarer, recalling the experience of being abandoned off the coast of Iran, said “25 crew on board became sick due to [a] lack of medication, fresh drinking water, and food. At times we only had only enough provisions for one meal a day.”
The crew made banners to draw more attention to their case. “Please help us. ITF soul-saving organisation, Angel at sea. Voice for grievance for seafarers – ITF,” the banners read.
By the time ITF Arab World and Iran network coordinator Mohamed Arrachedi became involved in the crew’s case the situation had deteriorated even further. The ULA was drifting dangerously without lighting or fuel.
Arrachedi, who has worked on countless seafarer abandonment cases, took immediate action to try get some of the crew’s owed wages paid. The coordinator’s action succeeded in getting owner Aswan to come forward with some of the pay owed to some of the crew in late 2019.
2020: abandoned during a pandemic and dangerously adrift, the ULA finds a safe harbour
By 2020, wage payments from Aswan to the crew had become patchy again, and the ship needed maintenance.
With the lives of the ULA’s crew at risk and most wanting to get off the then 38-year-old vessel to return home, the ITF insisted in April 2020 that the vessel be admitted to the port at Shuaiba, Kuwait.
However, it quickly became clear to the crew and to the ITF’s Arrachedi, supporting them remotely, that getting off an abandoned vessel in Kuwait during a global pandemic would prove markedly more difficult than any of them had anticipated.
Kuwaiti Covid restrictions, introduced just a month earlier, in February 2020, now prevented the crew from coming ashore – despite them having spent many months already aboard the tightly confined ship.
Left anchored and going nowhere, the ULA’s crew began to fester in their anger and desperation. Meanwhile, they were told, the authorities would chase the Qatari/Turkish owner of the ULA for fines, fees and unpaid bills.
When wage payments stopped for the third time from the owner, tensions on board boiled over. The master reported a mutiny, and four seafarers were locked in their cabins as a result.
Frustrated with a lack of progress and still penniless for the months they had already worked for Aswan prior to the abandonment, six of the crew disembarked in October 2020 once Kuwait’s Covid restrictions had eased. The six seafarers flew home.
All the while, the flag State where the ship was registered, Palau, was kept informed by the master of the plight of the crew.
Under the Maritime Labour Convention (Regulation 2.5 – Repatriation) a vessel’s ‘flag State’ has clear obligations to ensure that the crew are repatriated at the conclusion of their contracts, and should step in to do this itself if the shipowner fails to do so or if the crew are abandoned. In addition, port states should not refuse the right of seafarers to be repatriated and have a duty to facilitate repatriation.
In the case of the ULA and assisting the seafarers on board, Arrachedi said Palau was nowhere to be seen. “The ITF repeatedly raised the lack of provisions and wages owing, but no action was taken,” he said. At last, Palau would cut the ULA from its register. Case closed, then, apparently.
But not for the crew.
2021: Unpaid wages and unwelcome anniversaries
In January 2021 most of the crew of the ill-fated MV ULA were fast approaching a year trapped on board the vessel stationary in Shuaiba, Kuwait. Even longer anniversaries were nearing for total times on board.
By this time not a single one of the remaining 19 crew members had yet been ashore in the small Middle Eastern country. And as the pandemic hit hard and caused unemployment in India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Azerbaijan, the crew’s missing wages now became a matter of life and death for reliant family back home.
Some of the crew had joined the ship in 2019 but had not received wages payments for either the time that they worked or the time they had given up as effective prisoners to the ULA and its uncertain fate.
“My mother, father, sister and younger brother depend on me to support them since my father lost his job due to the Covid pandemic,” one seafarer told the ITF in January.
“So now I am the only one with a job. But I’ve had no salary for 11 months. They took out a loan, but they can’t pay it back,” he said of his family in India.
It was in January when the seemingly forgotten, abandoned members of the ‘ULA 19’ began their hunger strike in front of the world’s media – determined to be forgotten no longer.
Their message was urgent but defiant to rogue shipowner Aswan. They appealed to Kuwaiti authorities to pay the crew’s owed wages in Aswan’s stead, and to help them finally get them home to their families. Kuwait was willing to help with the latter. But recovering the seafarers’ wages, Kuwait said, would require sale of the ship – which could take years. Neither side budged.
The ITF spent much of early 2021 publicising the crew’s case, pushing publicly and privately for Kuwait’s port and maritime authorities to show compassion as the affected port state. Arrachedi from the ITF asked Kuwait to “take the exceptional steps needed to ensure the crew are paid and repatriated”.
Behind the scenes, Arrachedi was building a legal case to get the 19 seafarers home with their owed wages, believing the crew would need to use all avenues available to them in their fight for an unlikely victory. The six seafarers who departed the vessel in October 2019 would later join the legal case.
Freedom, at last – June 2021
In early June, Arrachedi received word from the Kuwaiti authorities that the crew, some having been on board as long as 31 months, would finally be going home.
A mix of relief and disbelief gripped the seafarers.
As they packed up the few possessions they had on board their floating home, their floating prison, the ULA crew took the time to send a message to those who had most helped them in the proceeding months and years of abandonment.
Top of their list of people to express thanks to, was a man, who, although physically many thousands of miles away had always had their back since he had first seen their desperate message for an ‘Angel at sea’ off the coast of Iran:
“This video we are especially making for the International Transport Workers’ Federation and especially dedicated to Mr Mohamed Arrachedi, who has been looking after the welfare of the MV ULA from 2018. For three years he has been taking care of the crew.”
“Everyone here is very, very thankful to the International Transport Workers’ Federation […] Whenever it was needed for the last three years you have been [in support] of our vessel, helping us in all ways: monetarily, financially, food and providing water. […] Thank you. Thank you.”
Watching the video of the thankful seafarers, the ITF’s Arrachedi can’t help but smile and slightly shake his tired, weary head. Like the crew, it seems he can scarcely believe that the near-three-year story of the MV ULA is finally coming to a close.
Or maybe it’s the ocean of other abandonment cases already lapping at the door of the ITF coordinator that keeps him from getting too caught up in the excitement of the men on screen.
“There are others. Many others,” referring to the volume of ongoing and incoming abandonment cases. “But this – the ULA, this has been really bad,” he said, waving his hand, as if to say ‘no more, please!’
While it is clear that the ULA has taken up much of Arrachedi’s time in the intervening months and years that he worked on the case, the ship has also demanded its own space in the trade unionist’s mind – and in his heart.
“It’s impossible to relax, to be calm, when you know that the suffering of crews such as these is ongoing. And so, you do everything you can. And we do a good job at the ITF and in our affiliates – but you always want to do more. And you observe the inaction of the parties with interests and obligations towards the crew: how can they do nothing? It’s absolutely unacceptable. That’s why I’m always pushing, pushing, pushing...”
Arrachedi said in the last month his mind turned frequently to the men on board the ULA, and the 16 Indian seafarers especially, given the deteriorating Covid situation in their home country. He felt their anguish as their detention prevented them from doing anything more than watching with horror as the latest Covid wave ravaged their home country and snatched the lives of parents, sisters, brothers and friends.
You get the sense that the ULA dropped anchor on Arrachedi’s conscience the moment it hit the bottom of that Kuwaiti harbour. And there it remained, swaying with the tide but remaining imperviously burrowed against any efforts to dislodge its weighty sadness.
His hope for the disembarking crew is simple. Arrachedi wants them to find their families safe by the time their various flights touch down in their home countries this week. There had been enough loss – enough isolation, he said.
“We at the ITF are very pleased to see these seafarers going home after all the suffering they have endured. Their families need them. And I believe many of them need their loved ones also – it is not natural to be trapped in a tin box for two years”, he said.
“Their hardships are not limited to the hunger strike – there is much more that this crew has endured that goes unsaid.”
But moving on from the ULA will be complicated for the seafarers. And for Arrachedi.
“Our work has not stopped on this case, as we are in contact with the crew, informing them about developments and coordinating with them the legal actions we are taking to try to recover their wages.
“But even if the ship is sold for a good price and all of the wages are returned to these seafarers – what is the human cost? What is the price of this trauma?” he asks.
ULA an example of what shouldn’t be allowed to happen in shipping
Arrachedi said the ULA had become one of the most notorious cases of modern abandonment. It showed an example both of what can happen with the international shipping system and of what should never be allowed to happen, he said.
“Firstly, we have an employer hiding his true identity and ownership in the ridiculous corporate shadows allowed by the flag of convenience system, so that he can cut a crew loose and not have to face up to the financial and legal consequences of that decision.”
“Then, we have a failure of the flag State, which might as well be a flag of convenience. Palau, like other flags that are popular with dishonest shipowners, fail to enforce the standards that they are supposed to uphold under the Maritime Labour Convention. They are supposed to make the shipowner honour their obligations to crew, and if they can’t – then they should really uphold those obligations themselves,” he said.
“And finally, we see in this story a port State sadly more concerned about Covid restrictions than prioritising the payment and repatriation of abandoned seafarers.”
But Arrachedi has some praise for Kuwait’s port and maritime authorities.
“While we consider that local port authorities did take a very long time, in our opinion, to facilitate this outcome, I have to be fair and say that the crew are only coming home this week because of the assistance of the Kuwaiti port and maritime authorities.”
Arrachedi said that it was not Kuwait’s fault that the ULA’s abandonment happened in their waters, “but I hope that all port states can see how dramatic the life of the abandoned seafarers can be, and consequently how vital is to act quickly to end these abandonments.”
Arrachedi also said that the ITF was thankful to the IMO and the ILO, both of which played roles in helping to get the seafarers off the vessel and home to their families.
Time to clean up ‘toxic system’ of flags-for-sale – ITF
New figures released last week by the ITF show that seafarer abandonment is at an all-time high. The ITF lodged 60 of the record 85 cases which appeared in the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) abandonment database in 2020.
Just 34 cases were reported to the ILO in 2018, with a slight rise to 40 in 2019. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of cases more than doubled, with the 85 last year representative of hundreds of seafarers who were owed repatriation flights, more than two months’ wages, or both.
ITF Inspectorate coordinator Steve Trowsdale, who oversees the ITF’s global network of 134 inspectors, coordinators, and in-country contacts, said the federation was very concerned over the significant rise in cases of abandonment.
Trowsdale said that the rise in the abandonments reported reflected a general increase in the abuse of seafarers’ rights. A trend, he said, that the flag state regulators were failing to address.
“Certain flag states have failed to ensure their obligations as defined in the Maritime Labour Convention are implemented by shipowners and, when necessary, enforced through action. Failure by these flag states to their job has contributed to the rise of abandonments we are seeing. Clearly, rogue shipowners think they can get away with it – and too many do,” said Trowsdale.
The coordinator said that flag states had a duty to ensure that seafarers employed and serving on ships which fly their flags are, as a minimum, afforded the benefits and protections provided for in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).
“These registries and the countries that they represent are quite prepared to sell their flag to the lowest bidder,” he said, “but seem far less willing to intervene to take action when things go wrong. It’s a toxic system that must urgently be cleaned up.”
“It’s not unreasonable to suspect that financial interests of these flag state registries might have some bearing on their cavalier attitudes to policing shipowners. Many registries are privatised, run for profit, or both. There is an urgent and long-overdue need to clamp down on the irresponsible registries which allow rogue shipowners to operate and treat seafarers like modern-day slaves,” he said.