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Left high and dry

26 Jan 2012
Abandoned seafarers face some grim realities

Abandoned seafarers face some grim realities

Abandoned seafarers face some appalling realities. How do – or how should – ports respond? Felicity Landon reports

‘Abandoned seafarers were forced to use rain water for washing’ was a recent headline in the Nautilus Telegraph, highlighting the ordeal of two Romanian seafarers stranded on a laid-up ship off Falmouth.

Owed three months’ pay, they were fishing for food, living in appalling and unsanitary conditions with no heating or mains power, and catching rain water because there was no fresh water on board.

“The real sadness was that they had paid a bribe to an agent in Romania to get the job, and it turned out to be the job from hell,” says Penny Phillips, chairwoman of Falmouth Mission to Seafarers. “But even so, they didn’t want their case highlighted for fear that they would be blacklisted back home and their families would suffer.”

The reality at home was that, with no money coming through, one family had their electricity and phone cut off, survived on leftovers from neighbours’ meals, and were forced to withdraw their seven-year-old son from school.

This, of course, is just one case. The issue of abandonment is a top priority for the organisation Seafarers’ Rights International, whose executive director Deirdre Fitzpatrick says: “The actual stories on the ground are extremely personal. The statistics are poorly documented anyway, and they don’t tell anything of the individual hardships.”

From time to time, such a case makes the headlines (usually only in the maritime press, rarely in the mainstream) and Ms Fitzpatrick believes that while the general public are interested, the plight of a few foreign seafarers seems fairly remote and perhaps lower on the sympathy scale than, for example, the issue of child labour.

“But for me, there are two major questions. First, how can seafarers be so undervalued, given that they transport 90% of trade? Second, how can shipowners take so little care of their ship, their most expensive and valuable asset? We are talking about a mixed crew, a distressed crew, a crew that has not been paid. A multi-million pound asset can be driven around the world in the hands of people the shipowners don’t even know, because they contract to a manager who contracts to a manning agency. Shipowners are very commercial people, but that doesn’t make commercial sense.”

Of course, in abandonment cases we are talking about the ‘bottom end’ of the industry, she emphasises – but there are still far too many cases.

What, then, are the implications for a port when a ship is arrested or abandoned alongside, perhaps occupying valuable berthing space or creating an operational hazard?

“The worst thing for the port is to have an abandoned vessel, which can quickly become a wreck; there is a lot of legislation about wreck removal,” says Ms Fitzpatrick.

“Commercially, an abandoned vessel is blocking the port, so you are going to lose fees. And there are environmental, pollution, safety and security risks. The port authority will not generally have any relationship with the crew on board and therefore won’t have any obligation to do anything for them – conversely, if a vessel is arrested and then escapes or breaks arrest, the port authority has a lot of potential liabilities.

“A vessel sitting in your port has to be a worry and a potential liability and a port will be looking at it from lots of perspectives. The crew is just one of those.”

What’s clear is that the way in which ports deal with cases of abandoned seafarers varies tremendously. Some move the ship unceremoniously to an empty berth in some godforsaken corner of the port, continue clocking up daily berthing fees, and provide no support. Others are far more proactive.

In the 14 years that he has headed up the harbourmaster’s office at the Belgian port of Ghent, port commander Capt Dirk Vernaeve has handled several cases of abandoned crews. He believes a proactive approach is best for both humanitarian and practical reasons.

“What Ghent does, we are not legally obliged to do – but for me, it is a human mission,” he says. “For me, a port isn’t only a commercial operation. I was at sea myself for a long time and I know the problems masters have and that sometimes the owners don’t care about the crew.

“Perhaps we are unusual – a lot of ports don’t want to be involved in the mess. But when you are very proactive, my experience is that you can solve the problem, because you can put pressure on the owner to do something about it.”

The Ghent harbourmaster’s office liaises closely with the local branch of the Seamen’s Mission (Capt Vernaeve is on the board of this charity) and the aim is to identify problems early. “The agent will not always tell you there is a problem – often the first thing that we know is from the welfare organisations,” he says. “There is also a signal of trouble when a ship has been lying in port for 14 days.

“We send a harbour lieutenant to ask the master what the situation is; sometimes the master won’t tell you too much but the crew will tell you what is going on. If the crew are ITF members, we push them to call the ITF – or we will make the call ourselves. The ITF will go on board and we work very closely together to solve the problem for the crew, because that is the highest priority.

“We check that they have food and drinking water on board, and marine diesel for electricity, and cash. We make an inventory of what is on board – we look in the refrigerator and we ask questions.”

It can then transpire that the crew hasn’t been paid for months and has enough money only to survive a few more days. A first practical step is to direct them to the neighbourhood supermarket, which can be two to three times cheaper then supplies from the chandler, he says. Capt Vernaeve’s department starts a relentless round of phone calls, emails and faxes to the manning agency, owner and/or charterer, as well as the ship agent.

Ghent has a fixed policy – with flow chart – to deal with cases of abandoned crews and their ships. A ship agent, understandably, will be keen to cut ties if the money has already stopped coming in. But at Ghent, agents are required to continue their responsibility, including providing for the crew, for a further 30 days.

Drinking water and marine diesel is provided and for those 30 days, the agent foots the bill. “We will then try to find a solution within those 30 days,” says Capt Vernaeve.

Pressure is kept up on the crew and manning agency and the port liaises with the mortgage bank and creditors about the possibility of arresting the ship. The seafarers are encouraged to employ a solicitor in order to ensure that they are priority creditors, and the port also ensures it is second in line as a creditor.

“In Belgian law you can sell the ship yourself and that is not good for the bank, because they could lose everything if it goes to a scrap yard,” says Capt Vernaeve. “We have done it. All we want is enough money to pay the crew and ourselves, and I don’t have to make a profit.”

Images for this article - click to enlarge

Abandoned seafarers face some grim realities Sanitary conditions on abandoned ships can be less than hygenic Helping crews secure backdated pay can actually be in the port's interest Food stores for the crew can get dangerously low or even run out when a ship has been abandoned Rotten vegetables and lacking stores can leave abandoned seafarers short of food

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