Abandoned UAE sailors still owed more than Dh500,000 weeks after rescue

The two seamen, from India, endured months of hardship on board the MV Tamim Aldar

Chief engineer Arso Lobo, left, and second engineer Vikash Mishra have been brought into port from the 'MV Tamim Aldar' tanker where they have spent almost three years at sea, but are still owed more than $140,000 in salary. Courtesy Vikash Mishra 
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Two merchant sailors have yet to receive tens of thousands of dollars in back pay after spending nearly three years trapped on board a vessel abandoned off the UAE coast.

Seamen Arso Lobo and Vikash Mishra, employed by Emirates company Elite Way Marine Services, say they are still owed more than $140,000 (Dh514,000) between them.

The pair, from India, endured months of hardship while anchored off Ajman and subsequently Dubai between late 2016 and earlier this year.

As chief engineer and second engineer respectively, they each found themselves caught in a complex legal dispute after their employer hit financial difficulties.

Today, both men remain in the Emirates and are refusing to return to India until they are paid in full.

Two other Eritrean sailors from the same vessel are also waiting for their salaries, with all four resolute that their cases be properly settled.

“The company is offering just 66 per cent of what we are owed, just $48,000 each,” said Mr Mishra, a father-of-two from Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

“We cannot accept this. Our families desperately need this money. It is three weeks since we came ashore but we cannot go home until we’ve been paid.”

The sailors' ordeal began after the vessel MV Tamim Aldar left Bahrain in October 2016 to sail to Iraq via Oman and Fujairah.

The ship - part of a fleet of up to seven tankers owned by Elite Way Marine Services - was transporting aggregate for construction.

During the journey, the ship’s main engine died off the coast of the UAE and the crew were told to drop anchor and await further orders. It later emerged that the company was in financial difficulties and was unable to pay for more fuel or repairs.

As a result, the ship’s crew - which at one point was up to 18-strong - was left abandoned at sea, cut off from both pay and regular resupply.

At one point, conditions on board became so bad that sailors were forced to sleep on deck due to an infestation of cockroaches and bedbugs.

With no power, cooking was also limited and the men resorted to breaking up furniture to heat rice and other basic rations over an open fire.

Speaking from Dubai last week, the two Indian crew described being released from the tanker and finally allowed back to land on August 8.

The vessel had begun listing, leading officials from the Federal Transport Authority to bring them ashore for their own safety.

Over recent months, their ongoing ordeal has received global media attention, highlighting a long-standing issue in major shipping disputes.

The rusting deck of the 'MV Tamim Aldar'
The rusting deck of the 'MV Tamim Aldar'

Since a database was first established in 2004, the International Maritime Organisation has recorded 366 cases of abandoned vessels affecting 4,866 sailors.

And so far in 2019, the Indian diplomatic mission in Dubai has helped repatriate more than 100 seafarers caught up in similar cases.

In 2006, the international Maritime Labour Convention was ratified by dozens of nations seeking to better protect sailors’ rights.

But the UAE is not a signatory, with legal protection for crew in the Emirates instead falling under domestic law.

A new bill due to come into force next year, however, is expected to overhaul existing legislation, offering much greater support for seafarers in the country.

Shipowners entering the UAE will be required to have insurance in place to cover fees for potential abandonment cases, with those who fail to comply banned from its waters.

Andy Bowerman, regional director of the Mission to Seafarers, a charity that provides emergency aid to stricken vessels, said the new law should put an end to lengthy legal disputes.

But he warned that now the men were safely off the MV Tamim Aldar, their cases may become a less urgent priority to officials.

"This new law will mean vessels can be arrested and sold very quickly in future to settle these disputes," he told The National.

"These men from the MV Tamim Aldar have come off the ship for safety reasons. They are not in danger [now] so their case is less pressing for the authorities."

The impact on the families of seafarers left unpaid for months and even years while abandoned at sea remains a significant concern for many.

Whereas the MLC states shipowners must take steps to ensure earnings are sent to sailors’ family or dependents, no such regulation exists in the Emirates.

Similarly, the MLC requires member states to cover repatriation costs of seafarers, while UAE law says shipowners should do so.

In 2018, shipping accounted for seven per cent or $7.3 billion of Dubai’s GDP, according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Last year there were 249 oil tankers, 113 general cargo ships and 221 container vessels all sailing under the UAE flag.

“With these legal changes, seafarers will be high on the list of receiving what they are owed when things go wrong in future,” said Mr Bowerman.

“Sailors want some kind of guarantee they will be paid, even if they go home.”

Elite Way Marine Services were contacted for comment for this story but had not responded at the time of publication.

It is thought the MV Tamim Aldar - understood to have been towed to Dubai Maritime City port - will most likely be scrapped.