The world is failing its merchant sailors

A legal limbo on the seas has many dangerous consequences for our interconnected world

Umm Al Quwain, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: N/A. News. People prepare to tow the Mt Iba oil tanker that ran aground in Umm Al Quwain. Tuesday, February 16th, 2021. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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We owe many aspects of modern life to the estimated 1.2 million seafarers who take to its oceans. This diverse and global army of men and women ensure, even amid the disruption of a pandemic, that we are never short of the goods that sustain day-to-day existence. Their sacrifice – often months in tough conditions at sea away from their families – too often goes unrecognised.

Recent events off the coast of Umm Al Quwain demonstrate how many seafarers remain vulnerable.  Five crew members aboard the MT Iba were left stranded after its owner, Alco Shipping Services, found itself in financial difficulties. Their ordeal lasted 43 months. They had not been paid since 2018.

On Tuesday, a solution was reached after the sailors accepted a $165,000 settlement. They will now return home. Despite this isolated success, there will be more seafarers who are marooned in a similar manner. The Covid-19 crisis has pushed maritime abandonment numbers to record levels, with 2020 rates more than double those of 2019,  The situation is so bad that both Pope Francis and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres have spoken up about the issue.

FILE PHOTO: A heron hunts for food as the ship Anna Maersk is docked at Roberts Bank port in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Redmond/File Photo
A lack of regulation on the seas poses many dangers, including to the environment. Reuters
Maritime bodies struggle to create, implement and enforce laws that govern the shipping sector and the seas

Not enough is being done internationally to protect sailors stranded through no fault of their own. Companies who run into trouble appear to be under little legal obligation to solve the subsequent personal havoc wrought on their crews and instead choose to wash their hands of responsibility. Sailors are left having to rely on charity, as are  their families at home.

The issue is difficult to solve. Maritime bodies struggle to create, implement and enforce laws that govern the complex international shipping sector and the seas.

It is possible to make improvements. In July 2020, ministers from various countries struck a deal at the International Maritime Crew Change Summit that expressed their commitment to resolving the many complex issues affecting mariners as a result of the pandemic.

Only frameworks with international reach will work, given the global nature of shipping. While such agreements are notoriously difficult to strike, not doing so poses a serious danger.

In Yemen, the Iran backed Houthi rebels continue to hold hostage the FSO Safer, a stranded oil tanker. The vessel, in serious disrepair and carrying a huge amount of oil, could explode at any moment, endangering the water supply and ecosystem of the Red Sea. The 45-year-old vessel is disintegrating by the day and a dedicated skeleton crew of five to seven people is keeping it on life support without access to replacement parts. Estimates suggest than an oil spill from the ship could be up to four times the size of 1989's Exxon Valdez disaster. Such an event would destroy the area's unique coral reef, prevent aid reaching Yemen and possibly jeopardise the desalination plants that neighbouring states rely heavily on for their freshwater supplies. In the meantime, while the Houthis delay its repair by the UN, the Safer's crew is in the most imminent danger.

Today's legal limbo on the seas endangers our security, economies and environment. Not addressing it is a disservice to all, particularly the seafarers on whom we rely so heavily.