Abandoned at sea: new legal charter promises support for stranded sailors

Charity and lawyers co-operate to produce 24-page document for seafarers in times of need

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Lawyers have produced an international document to support seafarers recover unpaid wages and seek repatriation when owners abandon a ship.

When a ship owner abandons a tanker, and fails to cover the cost of repatriation or payment of wages, the crew are often left to live on board the vessels without food, clean water, medical help or financial support – sometimes for years.

The Human Rights at Sea charity worked with Reed Smith lawyers in the UK to develop the 24-page charter that can be accessed by seafarers in times of need.

The document is designed to help sailors resolve their legal status, but does not recommend any amendments to current maritime laws.

It includes a draft legal letter to be sent to employers and ports, helpful contact information and practical advice for sailors.

This is such an important document and we will continue to support this extremely worthy cause

"Abandonment of vessels and by consequence the crew is an insidious and entirely unnecessary abuse of the human rights of workers at sea," said David Hammond, chief executive of Human Rights at Sea.

“The effect on the individual seafarer and the ripple effect on their families cannot be underestimated.

“This includes debt, debt bondage, loss of family support networks and in the extreme, seafarer suicides.

“Without continuous profiling of abandonment and its consequences – along with free, sound legal advice – seafarers are less empowered.

“We hope to fill that void without fear or favour with our partners."

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are more than 250 active cases of abandonment around the world.

The pandemic has fuelled the issue, as travel restrictions delayed crew changeovers, leaving many at sea beyond the terms of their contract.

Reed Smith’s global commercial disputes specialists focused on seafarers’ legal rights, taking into account the typical difficulties and pressures they face.

“The amount of volunteers for this case was overwhelming,” said Voirrey Blount, Reed Smith admiralty manager, who is an ex-seafarer.

“This is such an important document and we will continue to support this extremely worthy cause.

“All the lawyers on the team feel extremely passionately about this subject and relished the opportunity to try and make a difference for those who need it the most.”

Sailors stranded in Gulf waters

Meeting sailors stuck at sea for 43 months

Meeting sailors stuck at sea for 43 months

This legal development comes as five sailors on the MT Iba that ran aground in Umm Al Quwain earlier this year prepare to fly home, four years after they left shore.

Their case typified the situation for seafarers who lose contact with employers when financial hardship or disputes set in.

The Iba's crew, from India, Pakistan and Myanmar, went unpaid for two years.

After the vessel ran aground on a public beach in January, it was towed to an anchorage several miles off the Dubai coastline where it awaits permission to dock at Dubai Maritime City.

Once there, each sailor must complete two negative PCR tests before they are allowed to fly home.

But that could be delayed further due to the ongoing travel restrictions enforced across South-East Asia owing to soaring coronavirus infections.

The five crew – chief engineer Nay Win, second engineers Riasect Ali and Vinay Kumar and ordinary seamen Nirmal Singh Bora and Monchand Shaikh – were eventually paid $165,000 after employers Alco Shipping sold the 5,000-tonne tanker to Shark Power Marine Services.

Andy Bowerman, regional director in Dubai for the Mission to Seafarers, is assisting the crew's repatriation and welcomed the new legal charter.

"We welcome any publication that helps seafarers to understand their rights and are encouraged that organisations like Human Rights at Sea are seeking to support them, in the often difficult circumstances of their lives,” he said.

“We hope that when the new maritime legislation is approved in the UAE it will contain many of the key elements of the Maritime Labour Convention.”

The publication can be downloaded for free from the Human Rights at Sea website at: https://www.humanrightsatsea.org/publications/