Abandoned But Not Lost

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Over 18 Indian Seafarers employed by a Mumbai based manning company onboard MV Lamo has got stranded for over two months at Port Luba in Equatorial Guinea since 23 Nov 2006.  Captain of the ship told a news agency:  “We cannot go to port because we have no money. The company says it has sent money, but we have received none. The ship is run by diesel which has run out and there’s none even to work the generators. We have no way to make outgoing phone calls. We can only receive incoming calls and now the company threatens that they’ll spoil our career if we complain. My only plea to the government is to get us back home safely. We do not want to die here.”  Relatives of the crew are making best efforts to repatriate their kin from this morass  ( Click here for Full Story)

MV Lamos case is just the tip of the iceberg.  42 Cases of vessels, which were reported to have been abandoned from January 2004 to December 2006, are registered with the International Labor Organisation (ILO) database on abandonment cases.  A Panama flag ship MV Numo was abandoned at Aden, Yemen, with 11 Indian seafarers onboard,  on 22 September 2006.  The ship’s crew was not paid for about 9.5 months. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) took the initiative to report the matter and contact the owner.  The owner continued to promise that he will pay, but nothing was delivered. Later the crew of the ship reported to ITF that the vessel is in poor condition and the owner had stopped supplying food and water.  After protracted negotiations and pressure on the owner, the crew was finally repatriated in Nov 2006 and the wages were paid in December 2006.

The intricacies of  shipping is that a ship will be owned by a national, with finance from another country, registered under another flag, manned by several nationalities, with consignors and consignees at different locations and anchored at another harbour. The abandoned seafarers were often left at the mercy of Port Workers or coastal fishermen with none of the said stakeholders comingforward to help them.  The ILO has carried out a study on the subject, in consultation with the IMO.  The Joint IMO & ILO Working Group on liability and compensation regarding claims for death, personal injury and abandonment of  seafarers, held in January 2004 at IMO Headquarters in London decided to host a database of abandoned vessels.  Governments and relevant organizations were invited to send the appropriate information to the ILO.

Surprisingly, during the three reporting years in question, only eight cases were reported by member nations (France – 3, Spain -3 and Romania -2).  The remaining 34 cases were reported by International Trade Union Confederation (ICFTU) or the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), perhaps with input from their affiliated organs from around the world.  It is clearly evident that flag states are reluctant to report incidents of abandonment of vessels and initiate imminent action.  In many cases of abandoned vessels, the Consular or Diplomatic Representatives of the flag states addressed the seafarers’ plight with a lackadaisical attitude or have attempted to evade responsibility.

Though MV Numo’s crew could see the end of the matter within a short period of time, the ordeal of seafarers who were knowingly abandoned under inhuman conditions at different harbours / ports has been narrated as very pathetic.  The number of seafarers abandoned on 26 September 2005, onboard Panama flag ship MV Frenaso at Port Dakar, Senegal is not known.  In the remaining 41 cases reported within three years, 543 seafarers had to face the irresponsible and callous management of affairs on the part of ship owners, charterers and cargo owners who have absconded from the scene.  But for the timely intervention, negotiation, legal action and pestering of all concerned by ICFTU and ITF, 24 cases wouldn’t have been resolved by this time and majority of the 42 cases would have been left unreported.

 From the reports on ships mentioned in the ILO database, cases of abandonment dates back to even 05 March 2004 without being resolved (eg.  Belize flag ship MV Maha  at Port Abidjan).  Millions of dollars are due to seafarers as back wages.  Some ships are under arrest, cargo confiscated by financiers, litigation pending in local courts and owners are not known/ absconding.  The ships were infested with rats and cockroaches and the seafarers were surviving on food and water supplied by charitable organisations or Trade Unions.  They were not permitted to land ashore as their passports and CDCs were snatched.  The nightmare of the seafarers continued on these abandoned ships as they expected that their ordeal will end the next morning, but help never reached them as promised by the stake holders. The ILO/ IMO database will serve as an excellent platform for reporting abandonment of ships as it will be noticed by the International organisations.  It is a matter of shame for humanity that, people who have ventured out to sea for the cause of international trade and for a living has to face such a wrath.  It is a matter of global concern and the flag state administration should take charge of the callous attitude of the stake holders.  The provisions of Merchant Shipping (Recruitment and Placement of Seafarers) Rules 2005, introduced by the Government of India assume high relevance in this scenario.

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